Bach’s Cello Suites: “A Study in the Minimal”

Cello Suites  Bylsma 1One of my favorite sets of music has long been Bach’s cello suites. I’ve heard dozens of recordings, and the one that I return to is Anner Bylsma’s 1979 recording on a baroque cello, the first of its kind.

I hadn’t listened to these works in a long time, but I pulled out the CDs today and put them on. What a refreshing performance, introspective, yet expansive. And the sound he gets from his instrument – a cello by Mattio Goffrileli from 1699, and a violoncello piccolo from 1700 for the 6th suite – is wonderful. It’s huge, powerful, but it can also be subtle and detailed.

I came across this interview with Bylsma where he discusses his performance of the works, and he talks about:

the task Bach gave himself when composing the Suites — a study in the minimal

He discusses the fugal portions of the solo violin works, then says:

When Bach finished the solo violin works, I believe he was fascinated by the fact that one can leave out many notes and still be clear. The cello suites may have been an experiment to see how much he could omit, making the listener fill in the gaps of harmony and counterpoint for him or herself.

That is indeed the key to these works, the solo pieces for both cello and violin. They are successful because of what Bach could leave out, of what the listener could fill in from the harmonies and counterpoint.

I heard Bylsma play these works at the Festival Baroque de Sablé back in the late 1980s. He was playing in a small church, and I was in the first couple of rows. It was a transformative experience hearing the musician play these works live. I’ve heard others perform them since, but no one has the musicianship that Byslma had.

The Seon recording has been in and out of print over the years. It’s available in two volumes from Sony: Volume 1(, Amazon UK) and Volume 2 (, Amazon UK).

Bylsma also recorded these works again, in 1992, on a Stradivarius cello. (, Amazon UK) The sound of the instrument is wonderful, but the record lacks the raw energy of the first recordings, and there’s a bit too much reverb (though it may be entirely natural; I would have preferred closer miking). I wouldn’t want to be without his 1979 set; it’s the one I return to when I want to hear how these works should be played.

Update: I hadn’t spotted this before, but a commenter pointed out that a box set called Anner Bylsma Collection: Cello Suites – Sonatas contains both of these recordings, along with lots of other good stuff. (, Amazon UK) It’s 11 CDs, and I think I’ll buy it for his other recordings of Bach, Vivaldi, Bocherini, etc.