J.S. Bach Suiten für Violoncello
Thomas Demenga, cello
(ECM New Series)
Between 1986 and 2002, Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga embarked on a then-rare presentation of Bach’s Cello Suites, juxtaposing the beloved cello works against contemporary compositions. He’s just released a double album of all six suites—after years of drilling closer to the “heart” of the works.
“These suites and sonatas are, for us string players, an everlasting process of becoming closer to the core of the music,” says Demenga. He notes how the ambiguous nature of the “Anna Magdalena” manuscripts fuel the discovery process. “Beautiful writing, but still it leaves many questions open. It’s a lifetime job, being able to play this music over and over again and finding new solutions.”
New solutions involved unwound gut strings and a Baroque-model bow. As the record was originally conceived to accompany a film, Demenga also recorded each movement in one take.
For the first five suites, he played on a Baroque cello from the Testore School in Milan. For the sixth, he used his four-string 1669 “Soyer” Andrea Guarneri cello.
What do you love about Bach and these cello suites?
I think he’s just the most incredible genius. His music is so pure and so deep and so incredibly well-written. For every instrument he wrote for, [he did so in] an incredible way, with technical demands that are still very demanding nowadays. And if we imagine that at the time people were not such virtuosos as today on the cello, he was really a very modern composer in that sense. That’s really fascinating. Probably every violinist, cellist, or pianist will say the same.
Why was it time to revisit the suites?
Previous recordings were very different—in connection with a modern composer and over a long period of time. I’ve concerned [myself with] the process of becoming more Baroque- oriented in the material that I’m using. The last time I did it I started with metal strings and a modern cello and the normal bow and then I started getting interested in the Baroque way of playing it. I was never really happy with the metal strings. Every two or three years I recorded a new CD and I started finding out about the gut strings and the Baroque bow. Then the pitch, the tuning, would go down. Everything changed.
ECM, my record company, wanted to release them as a separate set. That was always an idea. But that was impossible with the existing recordings because they were so different—they had been recorded in different venues so the sound would not have fit. And so, they asked me to do it again. Of course, for me it was a challenge to do it all over again, this time in a concentrated way in a couple of days.
Why did you record each movement in one take?
The film had a steady, fixed camera. The idea of the film was, you’re sitting in an empty hall and you see this man onstage and he plays for you. There are no cuts in the film and so no cuts in the movements themselves. The whole procedure was really a challenge for me. Because of synchronization, I had to play every movement, with all repeats, through every time. It’s not a usual editing process of cutting the record together with two million cuts. It was a fantastic experience.
Normally, you would not choose this?
No, because you know, with Bach you’re completely alone, you hear every scratch, every intonation. Outside noise—a car, a tram—always happens. It’s of course much easier to say, “We’ll repeat measure 4 to 7 and we’ll cut it in; there’s something wrong.” This didn’t take place.
What were the advantages to recording in one take?
There is definitely a positive aspect by recording this way: Having to play several versions with both repeats of each movement is maybe more tiring but at the same time there is more natural flow musically. The phrases become automatically longer and I didn’t lose myself in details. Finally, one will hear a quasi-live performance instead of an artificially “perfect” recording.
Where did you record?
The Hans Huber-Saal in the center of Basel. Every two minutes there are trams passing and so there was really some noise. I don’t know if one hears it. I can hear it myself because I remember it. It’s not in a studio where it’s absolutely quiet and insulated. It was very special also—it’s a very nice hall, very beautiful.
You know these suites so well, but did any unexpected insights arise while recording?
It’s a very intense experience. You stay for hours with just the sound engineer, and so sometimes when things don’t work you are completely alone and you just get a response from the other side—a man who is listening in his headphones and maybe telling you, “Yeah, it’s good, it’s OK”—and I don’t feel good because I don’t think I’ve found the right expression yet. And then discussions start. I go to listen, and then finally I may find a different idea about how to play it.
Although I have practiced doing it in a certain way, when I hear it on the tape I think, “Wow, maybe it’s not good. Maybe I should change my mind.” Many times when that happened, when I was not content, I would go listen and the engineer, who’s also a violinist, even gave me some advice. I did come to different interpretations while I was recording actually. It was very interesting.
It’s one thing to play in your practice studio and another to hear yourself.
It’s completely different. If I played for myself it’s for my own pleasure. I think I wrote once that if maybe one doesn’t feel good, [these suites] could have a healing effect. You go into your studio and you play a suite; it doesn’t matter how good it is or if somebody likes it. It’s good for the system—for the soul and body. That’s a beautiful thing. And of course, if I would record this version, I don’t know if I would like it afterward. It’s just for myself; it’s for no one else to hear.
What strings and bow did you use?
The strings are open, unwound gut strings, so no metal around them. They’re real Baroque strings. And the two bass strings are custom made by hand by Charles Riché, a string maker in France. I tell him how long the string has to be and how thick. I play on a very low pitch, just a full tone lower than 440 A because most Baroque players play just half a note lower. I found this tuning more suitable, more beautiful, for the instrument. It gives it that dark sound. Therefore, I need thicker strings. Of course, you can’t find these on the market. These are really handmade. It’s very special that people are still doing that.
The Baroque bow is not an original period bow, but it’s a very good copy by a Dutch maker. It’s a completely different way of playing with modern bows. First of all, they’re lighter. They have less weight at the tip. They’re a bit shorter as well. You hold them in a different way also, not really at the frog; you move a bit toward the middle, which changes your whole technique. The balance is completely different.
You’ve stressed that these suites have a dance spirit—does the Baroque bow help you tap into that?
Exactly. The bow helps me a lot—to be more flexible, more light, have a different approach. If you have a modern bow, it will always pull down a bit at the tip, it feels heavier. For dance movements, it’s fantastic to have a Baroque bow. The gravity is much less; you feel that everything is lighter. You stick less on the string, but with the Baroque bow you can’t really play spiccato; you have to do it in a different way. It is kind of legato but it sounds like spiccato. It gives me a lot of joy to play the fast movements.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.