On Friday December 12th I saw Jaap ter Linden perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied ‘Cello at Town Hall here in Seattle. Bach’s ‘cello suites are truly one of the greatest pieces of music and I was quite excited to see these performed.  Linden is a historical music specialist and he performs these pieces on baroque instruments. For me I find baroque pieces to be much more present and filled with life when they are played on period instruments using the original tunings and using some of the original performance techniques. In the baroque era there wasn’t quite as strong a division between composition and improvisation as there would come to be and it was quite common for performers to improvise their own flourishes, ornamentation and bridging sections.  Historically Informed Performances (HIP) basically sound more interesting and alive to me and often transform old war horses into lively things filled with details you never realized. For me the HIP movement of the last couple of decades has been the most exciting thing to happen in the performance of the classical repertoire.

The baroque ‘cello has a much richer, fuller sound then the modern ‘cello especially with the added mellowness of gut strings.  In this performance Linden sat alone on the stage, unamplified with just his ‘cellos and a music stand. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the second row in the first wing just off center. This was a perfect viewing angle, not blocked by music stand and able to hear the unamplified instrument with clarity and ideal volume.  I did overhear some people after the concert complaining of not being able to hear too much in the rear of the hall, which considering how nice the Town Hall acoustics are was a bit surprising. I’ve sat in the back for several ensembles without any issues, but perhaps the solo instrument just wasn’t enough (or perhaps the patrons were a bit hard of hearing).  Anyway I’ve never heard such an incredible tone, so rich resonant and lingering.

Bach’s suites for unaccompanied ‘cello languished in obscurity until Pablo Casals brought them back into light. He discovered the pieces as a young student of 13 and studied them for and later preformed them for years. Not until he was in his later 40s did he consent to record them and his 1939 recordings of the six suites brought them back into promance. Now they are a piece that every ‘cellist will play and recordings abound.  I’ve heard several of these but prior to this show I only owned Casals original recording. While the 30s was well before the HIP movement his passon and his experience with them made for a truly powerful and moving performance.  Nearly all recordings, even the HIP ones I’ve heard have followed in Casals footsteps and they really are essential for lovers of this music.  Being a solo piece and one that’s fairly explicitly written out (i.e. less room for some of the typical baroque improvisation)  I would say the only thing lacking in Casals recording is the instrumentation. The baroque ‘cello is so much richer and resonant and that aspect changes how you interpret music. There always is an issue with tempo in baroque music, often it was not specified or used terminology that has changed meaning over the centuries.  But the instrument should always be a guide and when you play these on the baroque ‘cello the increased resonance forces you to slow down a bit so that the sound doesn’t become muddy.

I’d had the pleasure of seeing a local ‘cellist perform Suite no V last as part of the Gallery Concerts series but this was the first time I’ve seen some of the others performed. Linden performed suite no’s I, V and VI and part of III as an encore. While I love all six of the suites this subset (along with all of III) are probably my favorites so this was an ideal subset for me.  I would have loved to have seen all six performed but that would make for quite a bit of playing for one person on one night. Linden was having a bit of trouble with his gut strings holding tuning as well, often doing quite adjustments between the movements.  Gut is particularly susceptible to changes in the weather especially in humidity and we were in the midst of heavy rain that day after several dry days. In other words optimally poor conditions for traveling with a gut strung instrument. This piece survives that fairly well as it is purely melody driven and a musician of Linden’s caliber can compensate on the fly for strings that are slipping a bit out of tune. It all sounded wonderful to me and the quick retunings were never a distraction.

The ‘cello suites are one of the pieces by Bach in which the original manuscript hasn’t been found. The existing manuscripts are inconclusive in such matters as articulation and slurs (bowing instructions) so every performer has determine for themselves how they are going to tackle this issue. This again is where HIP shines – HIP is really a relationship between music and performer and by researching the existing sources and the practice of the time you can approach this in a way that brings out the best in the music.  Linden outlined his strategy for this in the program notes (which are well worth reading for those interested) and his research and practice clearly was thorough and essential to how fantastic his performance was. I bought the CDs of his most recent recording of these pieces and it is a fantastic companion to the essential Casals recordings.  Recommended.

Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
from the
Anna Magdalena Bach mss