Johan Sebastian Bach is one of the best composers we have seen in the history of humankind. His music was precise, soulful, innovative, spiritual and complex. Among his most famous compositions is the Bach Cello Suites composed between 1717 and 1723.
The Suites are known to have given the cello a more notorious role other than that of the basso continuo. At first, they were perceived as studies (that is why in some of the earlier prints, you find they say Cello Suites & Etudes).
Nowadays, Bach’s Cello Suites are a must in every cellist’s repertoire. They have been performed all over the world by the most renowned cellists.
There are many mysteries surrounding the Suites. For example, the original score disappeared. All we have are Anne Magdalena’s copies with a few errors in notes and very few annotations (except for a few dynamics). Cellists have had the liberty of creating their own interpretations of the music.
Many great cellists have performed and recorded all six Suites. Here are 6 versions that have been very popular throughout the years:
Casals brought the Suites back to life in the 20th Century when found them in a music store in Barcelona at the age of 13. There had not been any official performances, no recordings and very few marks in the score.
Casals poured his soul into the works and studied the pieces for twelve years before he actually performed them. I would take another 30 years before he recorded them. His interpretation is every cellist’s reference.
You can listen to the Prelude from the Suite 1 below:
Find the rest of Pablo Casal’s recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites here.
Jacqueline Du Pre
Du Pre is one of the most famous cellists ever known. She is particularly famous for her Elgar Concerto. In this recording of the Suite 2, Prelude, she was only 17 years old.
Unfortunately, Jaqueline was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was only 25 years old. Her career was cut short and she died when she was only 42.
To hear more of Jacqueline du Pre’s Bach Cello Suites, find her recordings on Amazon.
The French cellist has been praised for his interpretation of Bach’s work and viewed as the most polished, passionate and sincere since Casals. His version is considered, to be honest, delicate and true to its baroque period.
A sample of his work can be heard on this video of Bach’s Suite 3, Sarabande.
To hear more of Fournier, check out his CD on Amazon.
Rostropovich is considered one of the most influential cellists of the 20th Century. He is the only cellist to enlarge so much the repertoire for the instrument within a lifetime. He commissioned and inspired over 100 pieces.
His stand on freedom of expression and culture got him banned from the Soviet Union.
In this recording, you can see him playing the Gigue from Suite 4.
To hear more of Rostropovich playing the Cello Suites, check out his recording here.
Yo-Yo Ma is probably the most well-known cellist right now. His efforts to bring the cello closer to more audiences is visible as is his desire to explore different styles and sounds.
Ma has recorded the six Suites twice, once in 1983 and in 1997. In 2017 he performed all six at the Proms, a task few have ever done.
You can listen to his Sarabande from the Suite 6 and enjoy his facial expressions as he delights himself with the music.
For more of the Cello Suites by Yo-Yo Ma, listen to this recording.
This Dutch composer has won the first price in the Pablo Casals Competition. He wrote a deep analysis of the Suites in his book Bach, the Fencing Master. He was also the first to record all six suites with a period instrument. Many consider his version to be as true to the style as possible.
In this recording, you can listen to the Suite 5.
To hear more of Anner, listen to his Cello Suites recording here.
There are many more renditions of Bach’s Suites for Cello. People will compare them or criticize them. I encourage you to listen to them without judgment. After all, Bach left very little direction as to how to play them. It is then up to the interpreter to do their job in whichever way they see fit. Each interpretation has a different feel, based on the cellist’s life and experiences. It’s a delight to have music that can vary and please all tastes and ears playing the same notes.