J.S. Bach: “Prelude” Cello Suite #2 in D Minor (Comparative Analysis)

For crucial information on Johann Sebastian Bach & the Baroque Period, please check out my previous post titled (The Goldberg Variations: Comparative Analysis of Glenn Gould’s “Aria” & First Variation (1955 vs. 1981).

In this particular post, we will look deeper into the life and accomplishments of Pablo Casals, a Spaniard who lived from 1876-1973. Regarded as the pre-eminent cellist of the first half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest cellists of all time, Casals became most prominent due to the infamous Bach Cello Suites. It took him roughly 3 years (from 1936-1939), to share the Suites with the world. Throughout his life, he made many recordings of solo, chamber, and orchestral music, while also functioning as a conductor.

Bach composed his Suites during the years 1717-1723, when he served as Kapellmeister in Köthen, Germany. Though the Suites are intended as Cello repertoire, they have been transcribed for numerous instruments including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, electric bass, horn, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and even the charango, (which is a small Andean wooden lute.)

J.S. Bach

The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are some of the most performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello.

The suites are in six movements each, and have the following structure and order of movements: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuette 1 & 2, and Gigue. Considered as a systematic conceived cycle, Bach’s suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. Interestingly enough, the entire set of suites consist only of one single melodic line, which was a common technique during the Baroque Period.

We will be reviewing Cello Suite II: Prelude 

A rather inquisitive string of events connected Bach’s composition of the suites, and the manuscripts ensuing disappearance in the eighteenth century. Pablo Casal’s made a remarkable historic discovery of the long lost music in Spain during the late nineteenth century, and popularized the suites several decades later. Award winning journalist and filmmaker, Eric Siblin wrote a book titled “The Cello Suites, J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for the Baroque masterpiece.” The book contains six chapters, one for each suite, and Casal’s said “(regarding the Prelude from suite two)… The key is minor, the three notes a tragic triad. The tones move closer and closer to a harrowing vision, weaving spider-like, relentlessly gathering sound into tighter concentric circle that come to an abrupt stop. Nothing fills the empty space. A tiny prayer is uttered […] How could anybody think of Bach as ‘cold’ when these [cello] suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry,” Casals said. “As I got on with the study I discovered a new world of space and beauty… the feelings I experienced were among the purest and most intense in my artistic life!”

I most certainly enjoyed Casal’s description of the Prelude because I too, invoked images of a web-weaving spider stringing together a series minor notes. Pablo Casal’s was a mere thirteen years of age when his first cello came into his possession. As a child, he and his father walked the back streets in search of sheet music. To their dismay, they came across the Cello Suites tucked into a dark corner, almost as though the music was waiting to be found. It became Casal’s obsession to play them every day for twelve years before perfecting, and publicly performing them for Spain to hear.

pablo_casals_by_mudimba-d4olgaf

The early recording of Prelude starts off with a sense of tonal sadness. During the introduction, Casal’s plays with light pressure to his bow, as one note is strung to the next without much effort.  The strings seem to entwine, weaving together a web of legato mournfulness. There is a strong sense of sorrow in this depiction of Prelude, and it is amplified in the 1964 recording. The combination of the bow on strings creates a satisfying, yet nasally timbral quality, which causes the listener to focus 100% on each note that is played. The quality of the room tone and playing dynamics also draw the listener in to the raw talent of Pablo Casals as he channels Bach’s Suites in the early 1700’s.

Pablo Casals & His Cello 

Here is Casal’s depiction of Prelude:

I decided to compare the playing techniques of Casals with Mr. Mstislav Rostropovich, who was born in 1927 in Russia. Rostropovich was a Soviet cellist and conductor, and was considered to be the greatest cellist of the 2nd half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time. It’s almost as though Rostropovich picks up where Casal’s left off with the Suites, as he provides a completely updated recording, and playing experience for those listening. Both recordings are entirely different from one another (aside from recording quality of course), both musicians play their own unique interpretation of Bach’s Suites.

Mstislav Rostropovich & His Cello

While I found Casals version to be “up close and personal”, causing a rather emotional effect, Rostropovich creates a bed of tonal bliss for our ears to float upon. While getting quite lost in his interpretation, Prelude takes on a new face of legato beauty that can’t quite be mimicked by another. Some critiques mentioned Rostropovich taking too many artistic liberties with his interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites. I, however, quite enjoy the sense of “washed-out” reverb caused by recording in that particular Cathedral. There is a natural glow that provides a strong essence of space and time, that we seem to get lost in. As a devoted advocate of human rights and musical talent, Mstislav won 50 different awards that reflected his art without borders. He fought for freedom of speech, and democratic values which sadly resulted in harassment from the Soviet regime. Regardless of his continual struggles with his country, (for example, being banned from several musical ensembles), he remained a giving, and loving solider of both humanist values, and a passionate musical touch and technique.

Rostropovich’s personality shines through his interpretation of the Bach Cello Suites. Though his loose interpretation has been controversial to some, Rostropovich’s “touch” is entirely distinctive. As he connects the Prelude dots, each note is strung together in one long fluid motion. His attempts at expressing dynamic range are much cleaner, as the recording quality is much newer than the Casals Prelude.

There is a sense of emotion brought out by both articulation and dynamics in both Casal’s and Rostropovich’s recordings. However, due to the quality of Rostropovich’s Prelude, we can hear more of the crescendos and decrescendos he choose to make use of. Casal’s made more use of fermatas (held out notes), and accelerandos (gradual accelerating/quickening in time.)

Overall, I hear two very different interpretations of the same piece of music. I don’t enjoy one more than the other, but I would listen to the Casal’s version when I want to shut my eyes and listen to a fabulous cellist tie me in to his work emotionally. If I want to read or study and have beautiful, ear tingling background music, I would listen to Mstislav Rostropovich’s interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites.

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2 comments

  1. I never did get to hear Casals. But I got to hear Rostropovich several times as he used to come through Los Angeles through the arrangement of the famous empresario S. [Sol] Hurok. During the Cold War, S Hurok would arrange cultural exchanges between the USSR and the US [and probably other places, too[.

    Back in those days, there were some unusually great solo cellists. Casals and Rostropovich as well as Janos Starker and, of course, Jacqueline Du Pre and the old timers used to talk about Piatigorski.

    Of all these, Rostropovich is the only one I got to hear live. He had the rare ability to play the cello without making it sound like it was tortured and crying. In fact, you can hear these differences in the Casals vx. Rostropovich samples you choose When Rostropovich played, his tone was bright as well as full and set off harmonic resonances in the hall. Every note was exploding with the perfect harmonics and there was no tortured, grinding strings. Even when he was playing at a level of pianissimo. Rostropovich and Du Pre both had a tone that went beyond anything else I heard before or since.

    I found him one of the most incredible musicians I ever personally heard. Sometimes you hear someone who is so good at what s/he does that it is at once both awesomely pleasant and shocking in the way it challenges your assumptions of the aural and artistic limits of an instrument or a piece.

  2. My goodness, I am sure that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to hear Rostropovich play his Cello live.

    The thing with Rostropovich, (at least from the sources I found- is that people either loved him or hated him… I happen to adore him (like you), but he invoked a response in some people who felt he took too many artistic liberties with Bach’s Cello Suites. The harmonic resonances associated with the particular hall that you mentioned, irked some as being rather “wishy-washy”, and “drowned out”. On the flip side, this adds to a performance, giving it flare and style!

    When people “strongly dislike” one’s artistic works, it means the artist successfully invoked a response (be it negative or positive) within people…It is so much better to be disliked than having someone feel indifferent towards your work!

    Gary, you should come to Benaroya hall with my Mom/Dad and I this season. We’re going to make the attempt to see a couple shows if you and Ahava are interested in joining.

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