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Hyperion Records

CDA67541/2 - Bach: Cello Suites
Photograph of Steven Isserlis by Graham Topping.

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2007
DISCID: 4F119C18 E70E8410
Total duration: 136 minutes 6 seconds


'Thoughtful, respectful, inspirational playing, a perfectly-placed recording, stimulating notes … this is a fine achievement' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'Some of the best Bach playing I've heard since Casals' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'This is the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music, as well as the most musically alert and vivid … few will fail to be charmed by Isserlis's sweetly singing tone, his perfectly voiced chords and superb control of articulation and dynamic—the way the final chord of the First Prelude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prelude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax into the Sixth Gigue—I cannot mention them all. Suffice to say that Isserlis's Bach is a major entrant into an already highly distinguished field, and a disc many will want to return to again and again' (Gramophone)

'His judicious ornaments sensitively decorate—never distort—Bach's lines … rhythmically he's impeccable. The free 'phantasticus' style of the first four Preludes is gloriously fluent, capturing the harmonic flow implied within the single cello line. The fifth, a French Overture, is free of bombast and its subsequent quasi-fugue lyrical and unhurried. Isserlis plays the sixth suite, intended for a five-string instrument, on a normal four-string cello, negotiating the stratospheric range with astonishing ease … his sense of style is matched by an outstandingly secure technique. He has no need for those impassioned tenutos behind which others hide the terrors of multiple-stopping … recording quality is excellent—two-channel stereo is all that's required, and it's excellently balanced between immediacy and spaciousness. Casals (re-issued on Naxos) started it all in 1936—Beamish's Catalan folk-song arrangement is a charming tribute to him. Ter Linden (Harmonia Mundi) provides a fine period-instrument account, and Hugh (Kevin Mayhew) a somewhat reverberant but perceptive 'modern' option. But for me, Isserlis and Hyperion provide a completely new and inspiring benchmark for this unique tour de force' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This landmark recording combines bravura technique with scholartly research to produce a new interpretation … pushing each rhythmic possiblity to the limit but never sacrificing grace, charm and elegance' (The Observer)

'These are the cellist's Everest, and Isserlis has waited a long time to commit them to disc: his superb interpretations now put him in that great line of cellists that stretches back to Casals' (The Independent)

'Isserlis's dance-movements, particularly the jaunty Gigues, have a verve that is often missing from the 'classic' performances, and his Sarabandes, most of all the sublime 'Crucifixion' of No 5, are serene moments of repose and reflection in these thought-provoking and magnificently played accounts of these corner-stone works' (International Record Review)

'Isserlis is a passionate musician, but never thoughtless or frivolous, and the delicacy of his responses on this wonderful set sometimes take the breath away. If your soul fails to quiver in the quiet depths of the fifth suite's sarabande, then you must be a robot in disguise. Yet he's not on his knees always worshipping: time and again Isserlis asserts the music's dance roots, whether through his thrusting accents or by sweeping through with a winning lilt … just listen to Isserlis, Bach and your heart, and the music that never dies' (The Times)

'A worthy successor to Casals in every way. He creates the satisfying sense of a musical journey through the Suites … Isserlis's interpretation treads the path between profound intellectual understanding and a sense of spontaeous expression, both qualities that the music requires … this is an outstanding recording of some of the greatest works of classical music and a disc that every music-lover should own' (Classic FM Magazine)

'His vibrato-light tone is soft-grained but seems infinitely malleable. He can dance with the grace of perfect strength and physique, and sing plaintively, or from the heart, or in celebration, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him. In short, he's brought off that most remarkable of feats: making Bach's six great cello suites sound as if they might well have been written for him. This is unmissable music-making' (The Irish Times)

'These performances grab you with their intimacy and full-bodied embrace, their simple dedication and emotional truthfulness—an elusive juxtaposition of opposites that Isserlis captures better than most. You never sense he is playing for mood or effect—dynamic and expressive contrasts are modest—but he brings wonderful vigour and connectedness to the dance-like figurations. The sound makes you feel Isserlis is sitting four yards away, not just enjoying himself but also completely bound up in the technical and quasi-improvisatory challenges of Bach's world' (Financial Times)

'In a radically organic approach, Steven Isserlis takes the works back to their meditative core … the inner voice is on the whole wondrously refreshing, laced with flashes of wit and dazzling insight. I am still finding surprises on third hearing' (The Evening Standard)

'The Bach Cello Suites are the Everest to be conquered by every cellist, and the latest assault has been made by Steven Isserlis, with triumphant success … with this cellist's ability to catch exactly the rhythmic movements and contrast them with the steady beauty of the slow passages, this is a specially fine account' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'A beautiful, absorbing, must-have set of performances, with some delightful little add-ons, notably Sally Beamish's exquisite arrangement of a Catalan folk song, included by Isserlis as a homage to Pablo Casals. This will be a record of the year' (The Herald)

'This is the finest recording of Bach's cello suites that I've heard. The playing is enthralling, the production superb; nearly every detail sounds just right. Steven Isserlis has bided his time to record these suites and he cmes to them with technique and sensibility finely honed, all of it evident in his richly dark tone, fluent phrasing, lithe dance rhythms and lovingly crafted lyricism … one of the year's outstanding recordings' (Goldberg)

'Staying true to the Baroque ideal of free instrumental expression, he stamps his own unconventional wisdom on these almost three-centuries-old standards. No two interpreters will ever agree on the Allemande in Suite No 2 … Isserlis, for his part, cuts loose with a rollicking, stylized jig that puts to bed the prior brooding Prelude. He teases out the individual personalities in each of the dances and trumpets them, molding each suite into a fuller, organic whole. Isserlis impeccably controls his slow movements, and his focused, restrained use of vibrato is perfectly in character' (Time Out Chicago)

'Steven Isserlis achieves the ideal synthesis between the old-fashioned approach to Bach's solo pieces and newer, supposedly more authentic notions. Listening to Mr. Isserlis, you may find yourself enjoying these six works more than you ever have before. His rhythmic élan is downright infectious, and he finds the heart of the music without getting maudlin. A clear first choice for these much-recorded suites' (The Dallas Morning News)

'These are … meticulously prepared accounts of a highly personal and reverent nature. Listeners will immediately warm to Isserlis’s genial way with the First Suite and the solemn majesty applied to the Third. And while Isserlis may have the sub-text, the suites work with or without that in mind. Steven Isserlis knows the detailed history of these suites, both in performance and in composition, and applies his years of research and familiarity without omission to disc. The project has clearly been a labour of love and comes across that way—a set of recordings made from compulsion, not duty' (

'It has taken him years to face up to the monumental challenge that is the Bach Cello Suites, but Steven Isserlis comes up trumps in a deeply intelligent traversal with a tremendous emotional pay-off' (

'Isserlis has done the impossible. He has given the listener something new, and indeed something outstandingly good … this recording can sit proudly on the shelf alongside the great recordings of Casals and Rostropovich. In fact, I may find myself picking it up as the favourite' (

Cello Suites
Prelude  [2'29]
Allemande  [3'22]
Courante  [2'30]
Sarabande  [2'46]
Gigue  [1'41]
Prelude  [3'43]
Allemande  [2'33]
Courante  [2'01]
Sarabande  [3'55]
Gigue  [2'27]
Prelude  [3'24]
Allemande  [3'19]
Courante  [2'44]
Sarabande  [3'53]
Gigue  [3'06]
Prelude  [3'31]
Allemande  [3'27]
Courante  [3'22]
Sarabande  [3'56]
Gigue  [2'32]
Prelude  [5'55]
Allemande  [5'30]
Courante  [1'59]
Sarabande  [3'33]
Gigue  [2'37]
Prelude  [4'33]
Allemande  [7'37]
Courante  [3'26]
Sarabande  [4'35]
Gigue  [4'03]

Hyperion’s record of the month for May is a major milestone for a performer at the zenith of his career—described recently in The Independent as ‘the stuff of legend’. Steven Isserlis’s award-winning discography spans his diverse interests in repertoire and his musicological enthusiasm, as well as demonstrating his supreme artistry and uniquely beautiful sound, and his first recording of the complete Bach cello suites is an indelibly important addition to the set.

Steven writes that ‘the Bach suites are works of such total perfection, such sublimity, that it is well-nigh impossible to feel ready for them’. He has proved more than adequate to the task and this release is a triumphant conclusion to an artistic pilgrimage.

Steven’s eloquent booklet notes reveal his personal thoughts about the suites, as well as extensive academic research. His is an interpretation that has come from his passionate involvement in the music rather than from following the various theories that abound in Bach scholarship, and he discusses it fully in an article which is a perfect complement to this wonderful release.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The genesis of the suites
The existence of Bach’s six suites for cello remains something of a mystery. We do not know exactly when he wrote them, nor why, nor for whom; but it does seem as if they must date from the early 1720s. From 1717 to 1723 Bach held the post of Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold at Cöthen. This was the only period of his professional life during which he had a virtuoso chamber ensemble, but no choir, at his disposal; therefore a lot of his instrumental works—including the Brandenburg concertos, the partitas and sonatas for violin and almost certainly the cello suites—date from these years. A distinguished gamba player, C F Abel, worked at the court, as did a cellist called Linigke, so it is certainly possible that Bach wrote the suites for one of them; but it is also possible that, fascinated by the potential of the cello, he wrote them just for himself, to fulfil a need to branch out in yet another new direction. At any rate, the suites—seemingly the earliest works written for solo cello in Germany—exploit the potential of the cello more fully and more satisfyingly than any work since. And like many mysterious works of art whose genesis remains unexplained, they retain the aura of a miracle.

A brief history
The suites are explicitly mentioned in the first biography of Bach, written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, so they cannot be said to have been lost at any time; but they were not always held in the esteem which they enjoy today. The first edition appeared in Paris around 1824—about a century after the suites had been composed, in fact. Gradually more editions appeared; but some of them rather missed the point. Late in his life, Schumann, who considered the suites to be ‘the most beautiful and important compositions ever written for the cello’ nevertheless provided piano accompaniments for them (now lost); other editions superimposed vast swathes of dynamic indications and lengthy slurs onto the text, or treated the suites as exercises. It was not until the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals started to perform the suites (having worked on them avidly for twelve years) that they really entered the musical public’s consciousness; any history of the suites must pay homage to his devotion and artistry. I pay him a little musical tribute here with a performance—as one of the ‘extras’ at the end of this recording—of an arrangement of a Catalan folksong with which he is particularly associated: ‘The Song of the Birds’.

The text
There is no surviving manuscript of the suites in Bach’s own hand, but we have two copies dating from Bach’s lifetime: one in the hand of his wife Anna Magdalena, the other in the hand of a cantor and organist who probably knew Bach personally, Johann Peter Kellner. There are also two copies in anonymous hands from the latter part of the eighteenth century, and an autograph manuscript of Bach’s lute transcription of the fifth suite. The Kellner, presumed to date from around 1726, is thought to be the earliest copy in existence; but thank goodness it is not the only extant version, since a large part of the fifth suite is missing—including the Sarabande. How much poorer a world would this be without that astonishing movement! It is fascinating—and endlessly bemusing—to compare the Kellner version with Anna Magdalena’s copy. Apart from the variations one would expect in hand-written copies, there are passages so unlike each other as to suggest that Kellner’s manuscript might have been taken from an earlier version of the suites that Bach himself later revised. (Also, the Kellner version contains many more ornaments than Anna Magdalena’s copy.) So any cellist working on these suites has a seemingly infinite number of decisions to make when choosing between the different versions. How much easier would our lives be if Bach’s own manuscript(s) had survived …

Actually, the later eighteenth-century manuscripts, which are fairly similar to each other, have more obviously sensible bowings than the two earlier ones; but this implies (to me, at any rate) that they may have been compiled by players for their own use. And since their direct connection to a Bach autograph is impossible to prove, I have tended to consult them only when a direct clash between Anna Magdalena and Kellner has led me to seek a third and fourth opinion. (There was one particularly bad day when I discovered a chord in the Sarabande of the sixth suite that was different in every version!) It is true that both Anna Magdalena and Kellner’s copies are full of obvious mistakes; and both are considerably less careful than Bach’s surviving copy of his works for solo violin. But by meticulous sifting, and with a lot of thought, each player can come up with his or her own edition of the suites, based on these sources.

The versions on this recording are based primarily on the Anna Magdalena manuscript, but with considerable input from Mr Kellner and some help from the two later copyists—with the occasional flash of wise advice from Mr Bach himself, thanks to his manuscripts for lute and for violin. As another added extra, I have provided three different readings of the first Prelude, following as closely as I could the earliest three manuscripts, mistakes included—although even here there is an element of interpretation involved, since it is sometimes well-nigh impossible to decipher the exact beginnings and endings of slurs, or even a few of the notes.

The instrument
There is no question that the first five suites, at least, were written for cello. It is interesting to see, though, that, having pushed the technical possibilities of the normal four-stringed cello to its limits with the fourth suite, Bach’s experiments go further: the fifth suite calls for scordatura, or re-tuning (in this case of the top string, the A, down to G); and the sixth suite requires five strings, an extra E string being added above the A. Some have conjectured that this last suite was in fact written for the viola pomposa, a five-string instrument invented in the 1720s. It is true that Kellner describes the suites as being for ‘viola de basso’; but the names of instruments were far less firmly fixed then than now, so that is probably just his way of describing the cello. (Kellner also designates the suites as sonatas—or rather, as ‘suonaten’—showing that he was fairly free in his descriptions.) It does seem unlikely that Bach would have given up on the cello just for the last suite and turned to the viola—even a hybrid one.

A more likely candidate for the sixth suite, perhaps, would have been a violoncello piccolo, an instrument which Bach himself may have invented and which he used in several of his cantatas written in Leipzig between 1724 and 1726. But on the other hand there were many five-string cellos around at the time, and it is probable that Bach would have known this; indeed, one of his early cantatas, Gott ist mein König, BWV71, seems to require one. So on balance it does seem that all six suites for cello really are suites for cello.

Incidentally, although I spent several interested hours playing a five-string cello before I made this recording, I opted instead for the usual four strings for the sixth suite. The sonority of a five-string cello is so much thinner than the sound of the Stradivarius which I used for the first four suites, and the Guadagnini that I used (because of the different tuning) for the fifth, that I decided that it would sound anti-climactic; and the sixth suite should be anything but anti-climactic!

The dances
The Prelude, the only non-dance movement in the suite, was traditionally a chance for the performer/composer to improvise and show his skills, as well as establishing the tonality of the ensuing work. Bach, of course, goes worlds beyond such a purpose; here each Prelude, from the very first notes, enshrines the mood, the soul, of the entire suite.

Allemande: originating in Germany but taken over by the French, the Allemande was a highly stylized dance. In these suites, the Allemandes are the most complex and highly developed of the dance movements; a short upbeat introduces a pattern of strong first beat, weak second, and third and fourth beats leading back to the first. Incidentally, both Anna Magdalena and Kellner—interestingly, if rather puzzlingly—mark the Allemandes in suites 1, 4 and 5 ‘alla breve’ (i.e. in two beats rather than four).

Courante: the Courante, a triple-time dance, also rose to prominence in France, becoming a favourite of Louis XIV. It may have been derived, however, from the Italian corrente, which seems to have been closer in spirit to Bach’s Courantes; the French version tended to be quite slow and dramatic, despite the name. Bach’s Courantes are invariably energetic; the most serious one, the fifth, is a little more spacious than the others, being written in 3/2 metre rather than 3/4.

Sarabande: surprisingly, the Sarabande was originally a lively dance, hailing from Spain and Latin America; at one point it was even banned for its lasciviousness! By Bach’s time, however, it had calmed down considerably; it was obviously a favourite of his, since he wrote more Sarabandes than any other dance form, always making full expressive use of the strong second beat that is a feature of the dance. These six Sarabandes are emotionally as well as physically at the very heart of each suite.

Minuets (suites 1 and 2): also imported from France, these moderately paced dances were in triple time, with light second beats. The pairs of minuets here are highly contrasted, the second minuets in both these suites being in their respective tonic minor and major.

Bourrées (suites 3 and 4): also French, the Bourrée is a duple-time dance in moderate tempo, starting with a crotchet upbeat. These two pairs of Bourrées are quite different from each other: the second Bourrée in the third suite is poignantly set in the tonic minor, whereas that of the fourth remains in the major and is the shortest movement in all the suites, creating a humorous effect.

Gavottes (suites 5 and 6): also in duple time, but, unlike the Bourrée, starting on the second main beat, the Gavotte is yet another Gallic dance—the French were fond of their dancing! Bach’s use of Gavottes is here quite free, the second Gavotte in the fifth suite consisting of ghostly triplet figures, while that in the sixth seems to be (as far as one can decipher Anna Magdalena’s and Kellner’s rather unclear markings) a ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’—an ABACA form, with no second repeat.

Gigue: at last, a British dance—perhaps not surprisingly, since the Gigue (or ‘jig’) was traditionally associated with rollicking drunkenness! The Gigues in the suites are either in 6/8 (Nos 1, 4 and 6) or 3/8 (Nos 2, 3 and 5). It is extraordinary how Bach expands the emotional breadth of the Gigues as the suites progress, culminating in the haunting sigh-like pauses of the fifth and the celebratory richness of texture in the sixth.

A personal feeling (definitely not a theory!)
As with all unexplained miracles—Stonehenge, the cave painting of Lascaux and so on—the Bach suites have lain prey to endless theories about their inner meaning. Frequently, these theories—particularly about Bach’s use of numerology—have filled the heads of cellists and have totally ruined their interpretations. (We’re an easily bewildered lot at the best of times!) I have no desire to add to this array of complications. For me, the suites are first and foremost just that—dance suites—and should be played as such. However, there is no denying that as the suites progress, Bach’s music frequently transcends the physical sense of dance. One can scarcely imagine, for instance, anyone dancing to the Allemande of the sixth suite; this movement sounds more like an aria, with only the metric stresses reminding us that the structure underlying this sublime statement is that of an Allemande.

So, despite the abstract purity of the music—and in no way undermining that quality—I have always felt instinctively that there was a story behind the suites. The profound sadness of the fifth, for instance, has always made me think of the Passion of Christ, the loneliness of the Sarabande—that inexplicable movement, without chords, with no real melody, and with no particular rhythmic events, which has nevertheless become the most famous movement in all the suites—seeming to depict Christ’s darkest moments on the Cross. And then the sonorous bells at the beginning of the sixth suite have always brought to mind the joy of the Resurrection. Gradually this feeling began to expand, particularly after I’d read some of the pioneering works of Professor Helga Thöne, who has detected references to Lutheran Chorales in the partitas and sonatas for solo violin; I am sure that they are embedded in the cello suites as well. Furthermore, Professor Thöne has suggested that the works for violin are tied to specific Christian festivals; again, I feel that this could apply equally to the cello suites. The idea of expressing religious devotion through dance is certainly not unusual in baroque music; many of the movements of Biber’s famous ‘Mystery Sonatas’ for violin, for instance, are dances—and Bach himself constantly uses dance-forms in his cantatas.

In fact, I have come to think of the suites as ‘Mystery Suites’, representing the three kinds of ‘Sacred Mystery’: the Joyful, the Sorrowful and the Glorious. Perhaps this is too Catholic a concept for the Lutheran Bach (although his first settings of Latin texts do date from just after the end of his time in Cöthen); but it fits the expressive journey of the suites perfectly. It would need a proper Bach scholar (which I am most certainly not) to prove this—if indeed it could ever be proved. There are a few suggestions of evidence: the arpeggiated figures of the first Prelude, for instance, are very similar to those—also for cello—in a movement of Bach’s Cantata No 56, where they represent the rocking of a ship entering the voyage of life; the Sarabande of the fifth suite is quite strongly reminiscent of a much later work, the tragic ‘Et incarnatus est’ from the B minor Mass; and so on. But as I say, this is a feeling, not a theory, and I am sure that any evidence I could offer would be questioned, to put it mildly. Furthermore, I endeavoured not to let this feeling affect any of my purely musical decisions. (The only exception came with the chords at the end of the Prelude of the second suite: these are curious—five unadorned chords, lasting a whole bar each, with no question of ornamentation in any of the four manuscripts, and no established pattern that could be continued from earlier in the movement. There is nothing like them in any other suite, and many performers—including myself, in the past—have played broken chords or improvised a melodic line to fill up the sparse texture. Once I had read of the symbolic importance of the Five Wounds of Christ, however, I decided to play them just as they are written—five stark, uncompromising chords.)

So, I would—very tentatively—suggest the following six possible sub-texts to the suites, with the ‘story’ unfolded in the Preludes, and developed in the succeeding movements:

No 1: Joyful Mystery: The Nativity—with its innocence, and gentle sense of journey.

No 2: Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden. A tender and lonely meditation, ending with a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion.

No 3: Glorious Mystery: The Descent of the Holy Spirit. The joyous descending passage of the opening bars is followed by a hymn of praise, exulting in the ‘pure’ key of C major. Perhaps the scales and arpeggios, travelling through almost all related keys, represent the violent winds from heaven that accompanied the appearance of the Holy Spirit?

No 4: Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple. The arch-like arpeggios seem to suggest a great edifice. This suite as a whole seems to be the most down-to-earth—perhaps as if portraying Christ’s adoring followers.

No 5: Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion. The arresting narrative opening leads to the only fugue in the suites (albeit only an implied fugue, since there is never more than one voice heard at any time), ending with a powerful ‘tierce de Picardie’—a concluding transformation from minor to major mode. This suite is the most dramatic of the six—and the closest in spirit to Bach’s two monumental settings of the Passion story.

No 6: Glorious Mystery: The Resurrection. A peal of bells announces that Christ has returned from the dead to bring redemption to mankind. After the dark textures of the scordatura lowering of the top string in the fifth suite, the extra range of the upper fifth in this suite (the added string possibly symbolizing the extra dimension Christ’s body has acquired in his Resurrection) is all the more radiant, ending the suites in a blaze of light.

If all this strikes a chord with the listener, I shall be delighted; but if not—then just ignore it! These images are only there for those who may find them inspiring (as I do); but there is certainly no need for any extra-musical input. The suites are perfect in themselves.

Steven Isserlis © 2007

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