Excerpt from programme notes for CD "Bach Cello Suites"

  The Cello Suites 

Bach CD 3

I might as well nail my colours to the mast and confess that I do not subscribe to the view that there is a definitively authentic style of performing Bach. What is considered authentic by one generation is dismissed by the next. The revered Pablo Casals, who single-handedly rescued the Cello Suites from oblivion, was once informed that his failure to adhere to current wisdom of authentic performance practices constituted a lack of respect for the composer. Casals responded by declaring that to respect the music was above all, to make it live. Mendelssohn revived St. Matthew Passion in 1829 with a full-blown romantic orchestra and every dynamic variation available to it. Brahms, as Music Director of the Vienna Gesellschaft, although more discreet in the use of dynamic effects than some of his contemporaries, discarded the harpsichord as obsolete. Schumann added a piano accompaniment to the Cello Suites and Busoni responded to the famous Chaconne with a monumental work for keyboard exploiting the full potential of the modern piano. But all were passionately involved with the revival of J.S. Bach, hitherto overshadowed by his son Carl Phillip Emanuel and it is arguable whether his music would have lived in any conventional meaning of the term without their advocacy.

My late teacher, Paul Tortelier, began his English career in character by declaring that “”One must be a Purist, not a Puritan””. And there is no shortage of arguments to back his rhetoric: Bach was always ready to transcribe his works for different instruments; the C Minor Cello Suite transcribed into G Minor for lute; keyboard concerti which started life as violin concerti; the slow movement of the D Minor Violin Concerto appearing as a church cantata, resplendent with chorus parts and organ, are but a few examples, but there is also Bach’s well documented enthusiasm for the development of modern instruments. Is it not possible that he would have welcomed the advent of a keyboard instrument, which afforded greater subtlety of expression and dynamics? Similarly, might he not have applauded our 19th century bows with their capacity to project greater delineation of the polyphonic elements so characteristic of his music?

Certainly, I admit to an enthusiasm for painstaking research of period performance practice and historic background, but my contention would be that interpretation should be informed rather than led by a study of these factors. No amount of research can substitute for the artist’s need to conceive the music primarily in emotional terms. In works such as St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass, Bach reveals himself as a composer whose music expresses all the emotions known to mankind. Only after the artist’s initial emotional identification with the music can historic research meaningfully be placed in context.

In the case of the Cello Suites, we are faced with additional problems: Several different manuscripts exist but none in Bach’s hand and each undoubtedly containing errors. Excepting the forte piano indications in the Prelude of the D Major Suite, there are no dynamic markings. Bowings vary tremendously from Anna Magdalena’s 1730 manuscript to the 1726 manuscript of his pupil Johann Peter Kellner and there are at least two other manuscripts.

On the other hand, we do not have carte blanche to disregard known contemporary performance practice and deploy any dynamics and bowings at will. The music’s genetic makeup precludes such liberties. Embodied within, is a remarkable synthesis of rhythm, melody, harmony and counterpoint, and for this to be conveyed intelligibly to the listener requires the most disciplined control of the elements of performance. The executant is presented with an interpretative and instrumental challenge that is unparalleled throughout the length and breadth of the cello literature.

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TV interview of Richard Markson by Fabrizio Ferrari


Cello Music Editions

A collection of music scores edited by Richard Markson