Two Different Approaches to Bach’s Solo Cello Suites

By Laurence Vittes

This is the story of two cello giants, and their approaches to recording Bach’s Six Cello Suites. For Pieter Wispelwey, it’s his third complete set, on the Dutch upstart Evil Penguin label. For Jan Vogler, it’s his first, for Sony. When it came to their preparation and interpretive approach, Wispelwey and Vogler harbored views of the Bach Suites in which higher-level concerns trumped conventional notions of taking each Suite in isolation. Drawing heavily on the resources of modern research, and confident in their own virtuosity, they preferred to leave the interpretive details and nuances to the moment, according to their own style and personality.

“I look at this cycle as a unity in which the Six together form one big masterpiece, Wispelwey says. “Only then can we understand what is happening musically in all its layers as Bach moved from Suites One to Six. Most importantly, perhaps, is his move away from the normal four-string musical instrument in Suites Five and Six.”

Wispelwey suggests an intriguing alternative explanation: “Perhaps Bach wrote three suites to start with, took a break, then came up with three more, quite different suites, like mirroring semi-cycles. Bach’s imagination was so quick that I can imagine his coming up with either half of the cycle in his head—maybe both—on the spur of the moment.”

Wispelwey is sure that the suites “meant something special to Bach—writing just one suite was not enough for him.”

I catch up to Vogler just after he has laid down the last notes, a few days before Christmas. “I needed a drink,” he says. “Six Suites in six days!”

Vogler had recently played the complete cycles in one evening at the MDR Musiksommer and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festivals, and says the long creative process led him to think in terms of “36 movements out of which emerged a very clear picture of every movement in every Suite.”

He also feels that Bach thought of the six “as two cycles of three suites.”

Research & Experience: Wispelwey

Before beginning their recordings, both cellists immersed themselves deeply in historical research. Wispelwey formed an international team with leading Bach performance-practice scholars Laurence Dreyfus of Oxford,” England; John Butt of Glasgow, Scotland, and Kees Boeke of Trossingen, in Germany. (An accompanying bonus DVD, shot at Wadham and Magdalen College, Oxford, features the quartet in musical and scholarly interaction, including discussion and debate between Wispelwey and his musicological team about the “mysteries of the Suites and the decisions to be made when performing them.”

The big thing for Wispelwey was the unusual tuning pitch of A=392, prepared by Guust François. “The pitch!” he exclaims. “There was great variety of pitches being used at the time, so this had to be tried. It’s extremely probable this was the key in Cöthen [Germany] at the time [where Bach wrote many of his best-known secular works]: It was a German court, all of whose musicians were French inspired, and in France the pitch was 392, or at least distinctly lower than 415. This is what musicologists think that sounded in Cöthen at Bach’s time.”

He describes the sensation of re-pitching as moving from the “comfort and smoothness of the modern cello to the extreme . . . sensation of entering rooms that I hadn’t known existed.”

The cello Wispelwey played on for the first five suites is “a Baroque cello” made by Pieter Rombouts in 1710; for the Sixth Suite he played an anonymous, 18th-century violoncello piccolo. He used a Baroque bow made by Amsterdam-based bow maker Andreas Grütter.

“It’s just the music you would expect Bach to write for a four-string bass instrument,” Wispelwey rhapsodizes. “It’s so different from the Violin Sonatas and Partitas in which the music is much more explicit with all the double and triple stops written out. The Cello Suites couldn’t have been written for another instrument, or an orchestra or an ensemble.”

Research & Experience: Vogler

Jan Vogler came to the recording much more impulsively. He had already recorded the first three last year with his beloved 1721 Domenico Montagnana “Ex-Hekking,” and was ready to finish the set. With his unexpected acquisition of the 1707-1710 “Ex Castelbarco/Fau” Stradivari, he realized he had “two geniuses on his hands. The Montagnana has a beautiful tone,” he says, affection in his voice, “but it does not articulate so well. The voicing on the Strad is so much more incredible in general. In the Bach, it’s particularly three-dimensional.”


Vogler had studied each of the six pieces with different cellists, including his father, the cellist Peter Vogler, and Heinrich Schiff, who had inspired him to “make them my own.” The “great” Reinhard Goebel sent Vogler his own bowings for the cello suites. Vogler notes how profoundly the Suites affected Casals who started each day playing a Bach chorale on the organ. Vogler himself usually plays a few movements in the morning. “It’’s intended as training for the advanced string player,” he says, “for your bow and your left hand. More and more chords. Trickier bow techniques.”

When Vogler recorded the first three Suites last year, he set himself three rules:

  1. No vibrato whatsoever “because of reports that Bach did not like vibrato.”
  2. No tempo changes in the dance movements.
  3. Use all the bowings and phrasings from Anna Magdalena Bach, singer and Bach’s second wife, “even if they are completely illogical.”

After Vogler heard the results, however, he decided to “reformat the hard drive” and “clean up my Bach for myself. I allowed myself a have a little more fun and freedom here and there. After all, he loved to play games with slurs in the dance movements, to keep the player’s interest with very complicated bowings, so I studied and made my own styles of bowing based on the Violin Partitas. Now I am a little freer with my own imagination.”

Vogler fully admits the inconvenience of the fact that Bach wanted a five-string instrument for the Sixth Suite. He’s tried five-string cellos, but draws the line at the violoncello piccolo “which is too small—and sounds like a trumpet.”

Anyway, traveling with two cellos, Vogler says, “is a nightmare, no matter what Bach wanted.”

Considering the amazing results he and his Strad get on the new recording, it’s no wonder that Vogler “loves the range in the four-string cello. Play with the kind of vibrato you could use if you were playing with the five-string instrument Bach had in mind, but which may never have existed: very light and easy and bright, like a Haydn concerto. Really, everything from fourth position on should have the qualities and colors of that five-string cello.

“Unfortunately,” he adds with a shrug, “in reality, five-string cellos sound really boring.”

The Big Picture: Wispelwey

Each of the new recordings has yielded striking individual insights, especially when playing the 36 movements on an iPod at random shuffle, and even lining up all the Sarabandes, Allemandes, and so on. And, of course, even when listened to in the conventional sequence. Noticeably, encouraged by his brain trust, Wispelwey played at the dramatically lower pitch of A=392 instead of 415, with its darker, more deeply intimate overtones and harmonic implications.

His Bach is studded with touching moments of vulnerability that differentiate each suite, each  movement, each bar, in the composer’s vast kaleidoscope universe. Such a moment occurs in the iconic cadenza at the end of the Prelude to Suite No. 2, where Wispelwey hurls a brief torrent of unexpected, brilliant arpeggiated staccatos. “It’s so obvious it was supposed to be arpeggios,” he explains, “because it can’t be slow, normal semiquavers—that would be too static. And it can’t be too fancy, and especially not a whole Bachian improvisation as if he had been too lazy to finish off the piece.”

Wispelwey lays out his big-picture perspective of the Bach Suites as if he were rapping on a three-dimensional model of Bach’s brain: “You could say that Four through Six are a bigger version of  One through Three; Six mirrors Three; both are extrovert pieces, luminous, festive (Six more so than Three). Five is the sombre mirror of Two, which is the other minor suite, but the rebellious, resilient character of Five is more mature and powerful—it’s a very dark piece with a black Sarabande.

“Four has this intriguing ethereal prelude so different from the innocence of One and its naiveté; it still has an open mind, but also another side, which is hermetic and mysterious. The Prelude of One starts off as a simple presentation of the tonality and the surrounding keys; the Prelude of Four does the  same, but then starts to wander and gets weird, especially in the second half. The Allemande in Four has a clear-headed quality but a richer, more intriguing texture compared to One.”

The Big Picture: Vogler

In contrast to Wispelwey, Vogler’s playing of the cadenza in the Prelude of No. 2 is a contemplative moment of musical stillness that leads magically into the truth of a final lovely turn. It is only one of the discoveries Vogler makes while exploring his new perspectives of the familiar terrain. He was wary of interpretive generalizations, preferring that each of us find our own Bach, but while teaching he said he encourages students “to speculate and let their minds wander over possibilities which might later become options.


“Each Suite has its own different character in which we hear Bach responding to each opening Prelude with a suite of dances,” he says.

Vogler calls No. 4 “the keyboard suite, because it trains the cellist to sound like a keyboard. Very anti-string!”

The final Suites are both “big and glorious.”

Moving down a level, Vogler says that you begin “to decode at an instinctive level how Bach makes every movement relate to each other. The Preludes, for example, “are big and intense, while the Courantes in Two, Three, and Six are extremely virtuoso—like Paganini.” The pairs of Menuets, Bourrées, and Gavottes, before they kick off the Gigues that follow, provide a light, fresh correspondence between masculine and feminine, even in the scordatura of No. 5.”

The Allemandes have “big stories” to tell, according to Vogler, and there is differentiation, too. The Allemande in No. 5 is “very philosophical and deep, the one in D minor is more of a psychological tale.” The fastest allemande is in No. 4, the slowest in No. 6. “Experiment with hearing these dense structures to the extreme,” Vogler suggests, “as you play and listen.”

Tips & Tricks

If you want to play the Sixth Suite on a violoncello piccolo, Wispelwey says, “any cellist can pick it up. The Sixth Suite is so wonderful on this smaller instrument; it’s uplifting and light, Baroque and airy, especially combined with the key of D major. It’s party time, but not heavy. And the Sixth Suite is very hard to play, even for the greatest virtuosos, on a four-string cello.”

If you’re planning to record the Bach Cello Suites, on whatever instruments, keep in mind Vogler’s admonition that you be “super prepared” when the red light goes on in the recording studio. “Then you can weigh in and make your musical decisions with no technical problems to worry you.”

Vogler felt lucky to have a genuinely collaborative relationship with the producer with whom he discussed and recorded examples of possible choices for “almost every movement.”

If Sony wants to do a sort of Keith Jarrett classical-music update, Vogler has the unedited sessions on tape. “We could make it available as a ‘discover your own Bach’ thing.”


Bach in the Future

These long arching approaches to Bach’s Six Solo Cello Suites serve another purpose, to inspire those who stand at the intersection of knowledge, discovery, and mastery each cellist seeks in pursuing his own Bach Suites dreams. It seems certain that the new generation of classical-music consumers will eat up all these varied guises under which the suites can be enjoyed. Such cellists as Giovanni Sollima, Boris Andrianov, and Mario Brunello have devised musically brilliant, theatrically daring, and musicologically provocative schemes to bring these kinds of surreal perceptions to the concert stage.

And the music itself is proving to have more broad cultural relevance to the 21st century, which veteran cellists may find surprising. Wispelwey points out the Sarabande of No. 6, while elaborate and difficult technically, “is very harmonically simple and in its basic musical ideas—almost like a pop song, once you get to the core of it.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the grim No. 5 in C minor. “It’s so abstract and so out there,” Wispelwey says. “How could it have been composed in 1720? Is it a Solo Cello Suite by Bach or a huge musical fairy tale?

Finally, keep in mind that further developments await in what is known of the music and the instrument for which it was written. The first is that, as Wispelwey explains, “The Suites might not even have been written for the cello as we know it—there’s the issue of the thumb in the famous drone passage in the Prelude in No. 1. In No. 6, some evidence leads to thinking that it wasn’t intended for such a big instrument—it must have been for the cello da spalla.”

And what if it Anna Magdalena Bach was the actual composer, as some gossips say? She was, after all, a talented musician who bore Bach 13 children and to whom he dedicated two notebooks of the sweetest, most adoring tunes he ever wrote. She could have written the relatively uncomplicated first three suites under her husband’s fond guidance (she would have been around 20, he 35), after which he could have taken over for the final, extremely thorny three.

And what of Vogler and Wispelwey? What did they come away with from making the recordings?

“You search for this connection with Bach, and the closer you come to the guy the hotter is the fire, and the more you are inspired yourself to get the messages of life that are in the music,” Wispelwey says. “You are in dialogue with the composer and see him as very much alive.”

Adds Vogler: “Simplicity is the most incredible thing. If you listen to the suites carefully and quietly, they have a very human quality—they can be extremely emotional. Whenever I play the Allemande from No. 6 as an encore, someone in the audience will cry.

“It’s 50 percent truth, 50 percent imagination,” Vogler adds. “The truth makes it clearer, the imagination brings it to life.”