Tuesday, March 15, 2022

some notes on the cello suites

Some thoughts on:

Steven Isserlis, The Bach Cello Suites: A companion
Faber & Faber 2021

Considering the length of the work it covers, 6 suites, 36 movements, around two hours worth of music, this companion from star cellist Steven Isserlis is surprisingly slim, just under 200 pages (plus glossary, bibliography etc). More of a very short introduction.

What we get is: a very short potted biography of the composer - reminiscent of the author’s successful children’s books about composers, but with that extra bit of focus provided by the age old mystery of when, how and why Bach wrote six suites for unaccompanied cello, questions which he then addresses in a separate chapter. Then a chapter on the dance forms, one with playing tips, one looking for religious subtext, which I almost skipped, but then discovered it has also bits about numbers, which were more to my taste, and finally one going through the entire work at lightning speed, just dropping little hints here and there.

Isserlis always emphasizes the fun of playing (play like you would sing in the shower, he advises at one point) and apologises each time he goes into more technical questions like bowing patterns.

For me as a hopeless cellist having spent more than a year on the first three suites, this is just a little light reading, an enjoyable summary of many things I knew already, plus a few interesting thoughts that were new to me.

Sitting half way between proper cellists who can play the suites well and the lay audience who only know them from recordings, I may be well placed to appreciate the compromise that was attempted here. I fear the book may be too light for the former group and too heavy for the latter. But it does look nice in any musical book collection. And it certainly helped me get back into the mood for more suite work after the injury-related rest. So, as we go into Plague Year Three, watch this space for more Bach.

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