Considering that the Cello Suites live in the marrow of most cellists, it seems hard to believe that these six masterpieces went almost completely unperformed until 1900. They were not lost. They were regarded as études.
In 1879, a thirteen-year-old Pablo Casals went browsing through scores in an old music shop, but read his own story…
portrait Yousuf Karsh Pablo Casals.
For the cellist, the Cello Suites are far more than music. They are a challenge to the cellist's deepest conclusions about life. Mstislav Rostropovich put it bluntly: “The hardest thing in interpreting Bach is the necessary equilibrium between human feelings, the heart that undoubtedly Bach possessed, and the severe and profound aspect of interpretation. You cannot automatically disengage your heart from the music. This was the greatest problem I had to resolve in my interpretation”...
I do not write this from a critical position. It is not a matter of discrimination and taste. I write this as an advocate. Listen to any of the YouTube samples. Throw a dart. There is no wrong choice. There is this, life is infinitely poorer without the Cello Suites. For inspiration, consolation, or mediation, they are, as Casals said, “the essence of music.”
Eric Siblin was the pop music critic of the Montreal Gazette until the late 1990s, but he was falling out of love with it – a passage quoted from a deeply weary review of a U2 gig bears that out only too well. In 2000, staying in a Toronto hotel, and at loose ends, he goes to a recital “to hear a cellist I’d never heard of play music I knew nothing about.” It was Laurence Lesser, playing the six suites as part of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s ‘departure’. The effect was overwhelming (I well believe it), and the program notes tell a story of transmission and rediscovery of this music that is fraught with chance and risk. This recital set Siblin on a quest to find out as much as he could about this uniquely profound and moving music, and the mysteries surrounding it.
There are three interwoven strands to his book: Bach’s life and work, and the transmission of (probably a fraction) of his musical legacy; the life of Pablo Casals; and Eric Siblin’s own story of discovery. Each chapter titled after one of the movements. It makes for an interesting simultaneously listening and reading experience.