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.com, Amazon UK) and Volume 2 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Bylsma also recorded these works again, in 1992, on a Stradivarius cello. (Amazon.com, 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.com, Amazon UK) It’s 11 CDs, and I think I’ll buy it for his other recordings of Bach, Vivaldi, Bocherini, etc.

The Myth of Bach’s Lute Suites by Clive Titmuss – this is classical guitar

As student guitarists, we learned that J. S. Bach wrote four suites and a number of miscellaneous pieces for the lute, now played on the guitar. Wikipedia reads:” Bach composed a suite and several other works for solo lute.” You know what I am going to say next–perhaps you should sit down…: A more up-to-date reading of the evidence would be that Bach did not write any music specifically intended for solo lute.

The apocryphal lute works lie well within the confines of Bach’s established keyboard style, and other than a poorly thought-out arrangement, ill-suited to the instrument and worked-out at the keyboard (BWV 995, Suite in G minor), almost nothing from the composer really links them to the lute. Recent scholarship and the work of a number of makers and players of 18th Century-style keyboards have made it obvious that Bach wrote the music for, and probably at, the lute-harpsichord. The real story is everything that happened after his death that connects the works in question to the lute.

I love Bach’s “works for lute.” I quote the preceding phrase because, as this article explains, they weren’t written for lute. I’ve known these works since I was a teenager, first fiddling with the frets of a guitar, and I have listened to them so many times I can almost hum them. I was only ever able to play one of them, the Prelude BWV 999. But one day, perhaps, I may go back and try and play more of them. (Actually, some of the movements aren’t extremely difficult.)

Source: The Myth of Bach’s Lute Suites by Clive Titmuss | this is classical guitar

Coming Soon: Box Set of Masaaki Suzuki’s Recordings of Bach’s Complete Sacred Cantatas

Suzuki bachI’ve written about Bach’s cantatas several times here (such as this overview article), and there are a handful of conductors whose recordings are essential. One is John Eliot Gardiner, and another is Masaaki Suzuki. Both of these conductors have recorded all the sacred cantatas, and both of their cycles are excellent in different ways. Gardiner’s recordings were made during a live, world-wide tour; Suzuki’s were made in concert halls. While the former are a bit ragged at times, the latter can sound over-polished. (My favorite Bach cantata conductor is Philippe Herreweghe, but he didn’t record all he cantatas, alas.)

Suzuki’s set was long available only on single CDs (though several smaller boxes of the first few dozen CDs were sold for a limited time), but a complete box set will finally be released in April. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It is currently listed on Amazon UK, but will probably show up on Amazon.com in the coming weeks. At less than £200 for 55 CDs, this is a bargain, though substantially more expensive than the Gardiner set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s worth noting the following:

This boxed set includes 55 Hybrid SACDs in individual slip cases. The recordings on discs 1-27, originally released on CD, have been up sampled and surround sound has been added, making this the only available complete set of the cantatas in SACD format.

I’m not a fan of upsampling or faux surround sound (where the music is played over speakers in a hall, then recorded with multiple channels). Personally, I don’t care about the SACD layer, and the discs will include a stereo layer as well.

If you’re a fan of this music, and you don’t own the individual CDs, this is a must-have set. The clarity and detail in these recordings is exceptional.

John Eliot Gardiner’s Complete Bach Cantatas Released as Box Set

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One of the most exciting performance and recording projects of recent years was John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In just over a year, Gardiner, together with The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, toured the world, performing all of Bach’s sacred cantatas in dozens of venues. The performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, who released only four CDs before throwing in the towel. With all of this music recorded, Gardiner set up his own label, SDG, and released the remaining recordings.

I bought all of these releases on subscription, and this is one of the finest sets of cantatas I know. Now, finally, SDG is releasing a box set of the complete cantatas. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This limited edition set will contain 56 CDs: the 28 volumes from the SDG series (some were one disc, most were two), and the four CDs that Deutsche Grammophon released, so it will contain the entire set of cantatas. There will also be a CD-ROM with an index of the cantatas, sung texts, and full notes.

I have all the individual volumes, including the DG recordings, so I won’t be buying this, but if you like Bach, don’t miss this set. It’s currently listed at £139, which is a bargain, compared to what I paid for the individual discs, or $283, which is a bit more, but still a fair price. Of all the sets of Bach cantatas, it’s my favorite; perhaps it will be yours as well.

Read more about Bach’s cantatas.

Bach’s Sacred Cantatas: Recordings and Resources

One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.

Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.

A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)

John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” Since I first wrote this post, a box set has been released. Limited to 3,000 copies, it’s more affordable on Amazon UK – less than £140 – than Amazon.com, where it’s just shy of $300. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. It’s worth noting that this set contains four discs of cantata pilgrimage recordings that were not released in individual volumes by SDG, but that are in the box set. (Also available from iTunes.)

Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.

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CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

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While Glenn Gould was a pianist who performed the works of many composers, his name is inextricably linked to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. More than any other composer, Bach was Gould’s speciality. From his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 to his final recording, again of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, Gould recorded nearly all of Bach’s keyboard music.

This set groups all of Gould’s Bach recordings for around $115; not only those released on LP and CD, but also a number of previously unreleased recordings: outtakes from the 1955 Goldbergs recording session; a stereo mix of the 1955 Goldbergs; some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, from 1952 and 1954; and two live recordings, from 1957 and 1959, of the Goldbergs (Salzburg Festival, August, 1959) and the Sinfonias (Moscow, May, 1957). There are two discs of interviews with Gould – one with Tim Page, and another with John McClure – and a disc of Gould speaking about Bach in German. There are a total of 38 CDs.

This set also includes DVDs; 6 of them. Three of these are directed by Bruno Monsaigneon, featuring the Goldbergs on one, and two others with a variety of works. And three others are from the CBC, from 1957 to 1970, featuring Gould (and others) playing a variety of Bach’s works. Many Gould fans are familiar with the Monsaigneon films, as they have been widely circulated – especially the Goldberg Variations video, which was my first introduction to seeing Glenn Gould perform. The CBC videos are less common, though they have been released in a 10-DVD set Glenn Gould on Television. What we have in the Bach set is, naturally, the Bach performances taken from that set. If you’re a die-hard Gould fan, you’ll want to get the full DVD set as well.

Together with all these discs is a 192-page hardcover book, with some introductory essays, and with notes for each disc. Unfortunately, the notes are very succinct, and while the disc covers reproduce original LPs, the notes on them are too small to read without a microscope. (Is it that hard to include a CD or DVD with PDFs of these things?)

If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, you may already have the Complete Original Jacket Collection, on 80 CDs, which contains most of what’s in this set, but you won’t have the outtakes, live recordings and DVDs. This set, at a not-quite-bargain price, is worth getting for these extras alone, if you appreciate Gould. Especially since Bach is what Gould did best.

Nice packaging, a fair price, and a bunch of previously unreleased material makes this a good purchase for any fan of Glenn Gould. If you’re not familiar with his admittedly idiosyncratic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, this would be a good chance to discover one of the most original of performers. You may love Gould or hate him, but you can’t deny that, when he played Bach, he was channelling something transcendent.

Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”

Some Thoughts on John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Series

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For more than five years I’ve been buying John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series recordings on his label, Soli Deo Gloria. After this extraordinary series of performances was made in 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded them all, released several volumes of the series, then pulled the funding. Gardiner, armed with tapes of the performances, wisely decided to found his own label to sell these discs, starting with subscription sales, then expanding to distribution around the world in record shops and via online dealers (such as Amazon).

I received the final two volumes of this series (four CDs) in the mail this morning, which close this musical adventure. (These are the last two volumes that SDG will release; it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series.) This has led me to consider this series and its importance.

I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio (recorded on this DVD), Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the previously-mentioned DVD discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

If you haven’t heard these recordings, check out any of them; check some out on Amazon.com, and you can listen to samples on the Soli Deo Gloria website. And, to get a taste of Bach’s sacred music, there’s a 22-CD box set of John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s passions, his B minor mass, and a number of cantatas, including the four discs worth of cantatas from the Pilgrimage that Deutsche Grammophon originally released (and which SDG did not release; so if you want the entire series, you need to get this box in addition to the SDG recordings.)

Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for your amazing tour and its recordings.

A slightly different version of this article was published on MusicWeb International.

Update: The last two volumes of the series include a printed list of the cantatas by album and number. You can get a PDF file of that listing here.

And here’s a recent interview with John Eliot Gardiner about the cantata pilgrimage.

Update, August, 2013: There will be a box set of all the cantatas, including the four DG discs, in October, 2013.

Yet Another Important Box Set: Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Gustav Leonhardt & Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien

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If you like Bach, you simply must be familiar with his sacred cantatas. These vocal and instrumental works, written to be performed in church on Sundays and on feast days, feature some of Bach’s finest melodies. This set, conducted by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, was groundbreaking when it was first released, starting in the 1970s. At the time, it was the only complete set of cantatas, but now many others are available. Performed in what is now called historically informed performance, this set is unique in that it has no female singers; only boys are used for the soprano voices, unlike other recordings.

This re-release is a reminder just how great this music is, and how important it is to know. While I have this set, and like it, I prefer more recent recordings, such as the in-progress complete sets by John Gardiner or Maasaki Suzuki. But the pure instrumental sound achieved in these recordings, and the simplicity of the boy singers’ voices, makes it an essential recording. It’s not cheap, but for Bach fanatics it is a must-have.