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Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, BWV 1007-1012

Anner Bylsma, violoncello by Antonio Stradivari (Cremona, 1701), the Servais.

Sony Vivarte S2K 48047. Recorded 1992.

The six Suites for Violoncello by Johann Sebastian Bach were composed, as the musicologists tell us, at the time when Bach worked at the court of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723). These works form a kind of counterpart to the six Sonatas and Partitas which were written for violin solo at the same time. In a way it appears that in these violin works, Bach wanted to demonstrate that it was just as possible to compose four-part fugues and other counterpoint for a single violin as it was for the organ.

In the Cello Suites this idea seems to be enlarged still further as if to pose the question: how many notes can one take away and still leave a complete suite in the mind of the listener, harmony and counterpoint included—not forgetting the many dissonances and syncopations in this case which exist only in the memory of the audience!

Great, great pity that the manuscript of Bach has disappeared. However, of the four existing 18th-century copies, the one in the handwriting of Anna Magdalena Bach (Bach’s second wife) seems to be the most authentic and interesting, she being both a musical person and a precise copyist. It is a given that whoever accepts the challenge of playing a work of Bach plays chess with a master—a master whose skill is ten times that of the player. It is so easy to become convinced that something must be a mistake or is meant differently. Each player is limited by his own preconceived ideas and the nonsense that has be written and taught about these pieces—fantastic! An example: on thinks—is it always necessary to bow figures that look alike in the same way (as it already seems to be taught in the 18th-century treatises)? Or should we keep in mind, that for a long time in the 17th century, slurred-together notes were more the exception than the rule and that to slur something together was more a means of expression than the almost continuous modern application for making a text smooth, monadic, and a little uneventful. It is obvious that as long as the original manuscript has not been found, not one modern edition can be considered accurate or even possibly so.

What a wonderful music it is, the Cello Suites of Bach. Continuously one changes opinion, year after year. One keeps finding new relationships between the notes and every motif can be played in so many different ways—and always with meaning, too. But, some ways are more vivid and some bleak.

Nobody, it seems to me, will ever be totally happy about his performance of the Suites. There will still be so much untold . . .

—from Anner Bylsma’s © liner notes


Bylsma plays the Smithsonian’s Servais Stradivarius of 1701—a big, aristocratic instrument with a sound to match. The magnificence of the lower register will take your breath away: it's like adding another dimension to the great rolling sonorities of Bach's Preludes and Sarabandes, the latter searching but in a sense never finding. Therein lies the fascination. The only certainty of this music is that it gets more, not less, elusive: new secrets emerge, the complexion of the notes and the relationship between them changes with every musician who is alone with them, and Bylsma is well worth eavesdropping on.

—The Independent (London), 17 October 1992
On this album: 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, BWV 1007-1012