Steven Isserlis—Bach Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor, BWV 1011 - 92Y, New York

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Steven Isserlis—Bach Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor, BWV 1011

Apr 28, 2018

Steven Isserlis, cello
Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor, BWV 1011 composed circa 1720
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

Gavotte I – Gavotte II

Program note by Steven Isserlis © 2018:

The existence of Bach’s six suites for cello remains something of a sacred mystery. We do not know exactly when he wrote them, nor why, nor for whom. We have no idea whether he wrote them all within the same period, or whether they were written at different times. We think, at least, that we can date all the suites fairly confidently to the early 1720s, though no more precisely than that. From 1717-23 Bach held the post of Kappellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold at Cöthen. This was the only period of his professional life during which he had a virtuoso chamber ensemble, but no choir, at his disposal; therefore, many of his instrumental works — including the Brandenburg Concertos, the partitas and sonatas for violin and almost certainly the cello suites — date from these years. A distinguished gamba player and cellist, C. F. Abel, worked at the court, as did a cellist named Linigke. It is certainly possible that Bach wrote the suites for one of them; but it is also possible that — fascinated by the potential of the cello, now emerging as a replacement for the gamba — he wrote them just for himself, to fulfill a need to branch out in yet another new direction. At any rate, the suites — seemingly the earliest works written for solo cello in Germany — exploit the potential of the cello more fully and more satisfyingly than any work since. And like many mysterious works of art whose genesis remains unexplained, they retain the aura of a miracle.

Might there be something programmatic behind the suites? Impossible to know, but I have an instinctive feeling that there is. Needless to say, there is no real necessity to provide an extra-musical idea in regard to music that is so perfect, so complete in itself; but that does not preclude the possibility that there is one. Perhaps I’m completely wrong, and Baching up the wrong tree; but for me the suites are “Mystery Sonatas,” a telling of the life of Christ in abstract music. They are of course also — primarily, in fact — dance suites; but there is no contradiction there. Biber’s Mystery Sonatas (could Bach have known them?) are also full of dance movements; and one only has to think of the Siciliano rhythm of the heartbreaking violin obbligato opening to “Erbarme Dich” in the St Matthew Passion to realize that for Bach, man worships God with the body as much as with the mind and heart. If they are indeed Mystery Sonatas, then the suites would be comprised of two sets of three: two Joyful Mysteries (Nos. 1 and 4), two Sorrowful Mysteries (Nos. 2 and 5) and two Glorious Mysteries (Nos. 3 and 6).

At any rate, I find it impossible not to think of the story of the Crucifixion in connection with the fifth suite. This is the most darkly dramatic of the six suites — and the closest in spirit to Bach’s two monumental settings of the Passion story. The arresting narrative of the opening leads to the only fugue within the suites (albeit only an implied fugue, since there is never more than one voice heard at any time), the whole Prelude ending with a powerful “tierce de Picardie” — a concluding transformation from minor to major mode — which feels like a statement of faith. The tragic atmosphere of the suite reaches its emotional peak in the desolate loneliness of the famous Sarabande. What an extraordinary movement this is: no discernible melody as such, no particular rhythmic interest, no obvious dynamic changes, no chords — and yet, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever composed.