Official release: 16 April 2021
Bach loved to collect and gather his best works in series, normally constituted by an elegant number of works. Six was a number he particularly prized: in fact, there are six English Suites, six French Suites, six Partitas for keyboard instruments, six works for unaccompanied solo violin (three Sonatas and three Partitas), six Brandenburg Concertos… to cite but a few examples. Each of the series cited above represents a true collection of masterpieces, and many of them represent one of the summits of the literature for a given instrument or ensemble. This is certainly the case with the six works for solo violin and with the six Suites for solo cello.
The playing technique of both instruments was already very developed at Bach’s time, in particular thanks to the experiments of the Italian baroque violinists and cellists. However, the idea of composing works for unaccompanied violin and cello was still rather revolutionary. It was not unprecedented; as concerns the cello in particular, the Italian cellist Domenico Gabrielli (1650-1690) had composed a series of Ricercari for his instrument, without continuo. Other examples from the Italian baroque era are found particularly in the city of Bologna, thus testifying to an enduring “experimental tradition”, if an oxymoron is allowed.
Bach’s Suites for unaccompanied cello were composed in all likelihood during the years he spent in Köthen (1717-23). Here he was employed by a Calvinist Prince, Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. On the one hand, Calvinist worship did not admit complex musical settings: thus, Bach did not have duties in the field of sacred music (arguably, he did not find this situation ideal since he was genuinely drawn to the domain of church music). On the other, however, Leopold was extremely interested in music, and his Chapel included excellent musicians, such as Ferdinand Christian Abel, a gamba and cello player of exceptional standing.
At Köthen, therefore, Bach concentrated his compositional efforts mainly in the field of instrumental music, creating some of his greatest masterpieces within the framework of this brilliant and music-loving court.
In all likelihood, the possibility of cooperating with Abel was one of the stimuli behind his choice to compose the six Suites. Most scholars agree that the cello cycle probably antedates the three Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, on the grounds that the violin works are even more revolutionary than those for the cello, particularly as concerns the treatment of form. This remains however a matter of speculation, mainly because the autograph of the Suites has unfortunately been lost. This is a much-regretted misfortune, since the four main extant copies display very conflicting indications as concerns articulation and phrasing, thus making it virtually impossible to reach the mythical “Urtext”, the “authentic text”. The most reliable version, under many aspects, is the one copied by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. (A recent theory according to which Anna Magdalena would be the true composer of these pieces has been almost unanimously refuted by the community of Bach scholars). However, Anna Magdalena’s copy is not entirely reliable, and the problem of the original “text” is still the object of heated debates among scholars and musicians alike.
This does not prevent the Cello Suites from being one of the chief masterpieces of cello literature, and a benchmark for virtually all of the great performers of this instrument. As happened with many other works by Bach, the Suites had fallen into oblivion (or something very close to oblivion) for a long stretch of time. Robert Schumann had observed and appreciated their beauty and their value, and, in the attempt to make them more palatable to his contemporaries, had created piano accompaniments for them. (At Schumann’s time, a century after Bach, the idea of publicly playing works for the cello alone was still very controversial). Different from Schumann’s accompaniments for Bach’s solo violin works, those for the Cello Suites were probably destroyed by his wife and only a fragment has survived. The fortune of the Suites was decreed only in the twentieth century, and largely thanks to the intuition of legendary cellist Pau Casals. Having found their score in a music shop as a teenager, Casals championed these pieces playing them in concert, and later realizing (in the Thirties) their first complete recording, which still is considered as a masterpiece in its own right. From that moment, none of the great cellists of the past century has dared to neglect Bach’s Suites, which currently constitute compulsory works during a budding cellist’s education, at competitions, and have conquered pride of place on the concert stage. The cello’s generous and round voice, its expressivity, the pieces’ beauty and their complexity have become iconic. In consequence, even “pop” culture has absorbed the Suites, which are heard in countless films or advertisements, but also in moments of collective and “historic” emotion, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
All Suites follow the same plot: the four “standard” dances of the Baroque suite (the German Allemande, the French Courante, the Spanish Sarabande and the English Gigue), preceded by a Prelude, and including some “Galanterien”, as Bach called them, situated between Sarabande and Gigue. These “Galanterien” are Menuets in the first two Suites, Bourrées in the following two, and Gavottes in the last two.
Due to their tonal features and to their overall stylistic characteristics, the Suites build an itinerary in musical terms and in technical qualities. The First Suite opens the series with a seemingly simple (and extremely famous) Prelude, whose first harmonic sequence is identical with that of the First Prelude from Book One of the Well-Tempered Keyboard. In spite of the essentially melodic nature of the cello, in fact, Bach pushed the boundaries of technique, including complex chordal writing and – when this was not possible or advisable – the illusion of harmony and polyphony, skillfully created by exploiting the human mind’s power to recognize a musical Gestalt, a musical identity even when some notes are “missing” or implied.
The first Suite is characterized in general by this deceptive and seeming simplicity; it his less complex to play than the others, and its overall mood is more serene and peaceful than those of its later companions. As in most of Bach’s Suites (including those for other instruments or ensembles), here too the Sarabande is one of the most touching and enchanted moments, even though the concluding Gigue closes the Suites on a much more earthy tone.
By way of contrast, the second Suite is in the sombre and expressive key of D minor. Its Prelude confirms these qualities, which were felt as belonging to this tonal domain, and is a masterful accumulation of musical tension, converging towards an unforgettable musical climax, roughly corresponding to the golden ratio of the piece. The other dances of this Suite seem to exasperate the qualities traditionally attributed to each of them: the Allemande is complex and reflective, the Courante is enthralling and vivid, the Sarabande majestic and solemn, the Menuets elegant and refined, whereas the final Gigue is a rhythmically complex game of accents and metres.
The third Suite, in the sunny key of C major, dispels the ghosts of the preceding piece, affirming the new key with clarity and self-assuredness. This Suite bubbles with fantasy, even with humour, particularly through the use of unexpected accents and shifting beats, as in the Prelude. In this case, the Allemande relinquishes its occasionally stately vocation, and favours a more direct approach, uncomplicated and very immediate. The Courante, in turn, is galloping and brilliant, while the Sarabande once more represents the artistic summit of the Suite. The closing dances do nothing to counter the generally confident and joyful character of this Suite.
The key of E-flat major – different from the preceding – is rather ill-suited to the cello. However, what it lacks in terms of brilliancy and openness, it gains in terms of sweetness and intimacy. In fact, this Suite is characterized by its touching contemplative mood, which verges on the elegiac. Its Prelude is built on a fluent stream of quavers, and includes an expressive cadenza; among the other dances, the Sarabande is once more the one which remains most dearly in the listener’s memory. In this case, possibly mirroring the somewhat mysterious character of this Suite, the Sarabande seems to hide its very nature, by treating with some rhythmic ambiguity its traditional metrical features.
The Fifth Suite was originally destined for a cello with “scordatura”: the highest string, normally an A, should be tuned down to G. This darkens its colour considerably and sacrifices its brilliancy, but provides the instrument with two G strings, thus creating a powerful resonance for the tonic and dominant of this Suite, in the dark key of C minor. Indeed, the entire Suite is characterized by sombreness and opacity; its imposing Prelude, in the form of a French Overture, throws a bridge to the following Sarabande, one of the most exquisite examples of the genre.
The final Suite poses still other technical problems, since it was conceived for a five-string instrument (possibly a viola pomposa). The virtuosity of the instrument Bach had in mind encouraged him to write a Suite with a high number of cadenza-like passages: it has been said that, with this Suite, Bach makes the cello “ascend to heaven”.
Together, these Suites do indeed build an itinerary exploring all the moods and feelings of the human soul, and, possibly, they also constitute a musical “history of salvation”, from the original innocence of the first Suite to the resurrection of the D-major Suite, after experiencing suffering, joy, death and hope. Dance here becomes life, and, possibly, it also becomes prayer.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
MATILDA COLLIARD: Born in 1987 into a musicians family, Matilda began studying cello at the age of 4. She graduated under the guidance of Maestro Alberto Drufuca at Novara Conservatory with highest honors. She followed master classes with Enrico Bronzi, Giovanni Gnocchi, Marianne Chen, Rafael Rosenfeld and Macha Yanouchevsky. Winner of many chamber music competitions, she specialized in the repertoire for cello and piano with Maestro Pier Narciso Masi at the International Piano Academy of Imola and later at the Academy of Music in Fusignano. She did a specialization in baroque cello with M. Gaetano Nasillo. From 2013 she started a new collaboration as duo cello and piano with Stefano Ligoratti. She founded, together with Stefano Ligoratti and Eugenio Francesco Chiaravalloti, the Musical Association "Colpi d'arte" in Milan with the aim is to promote music and culture. In 2016 she founded Trio Carducci. They have videorecorded the Trio élégiaque n.1 by Rachmaninov and they are completing the recording of Seasons by Tchaikovsky (transcription for piano trio by Goedike). In February 2017, with Trio Carducci has won 2nd prize at Grand Prize Virtuoso Competition and they have debut at Royal Albert Hall - Elgar Room in London. In 2018 they had a concert at the prestigious Saint Martin in the fields in London. In june they did a China tour. In december 2018, with Trio Carducci, she released a cd dedicated to A. Arensky for Brilliant Classics. In 2019 she founded Trio Zandonai with Lorenzo Tranquillini (Violin) and Francesco Maria Moncher (Piano). From september 2017 she's cello Teacher of Rudolf Steiner School in Milan.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.