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Performing Bach's iconic suites has become a rite of passage for many cellists, but Richard Tunnicliffe's extensive experience and virtuosity allowed him to create a recording that highlights the distinct personality and individuality of each movement. His performances of the six works have been acclaimed in Europe and Australia as well as at numerous venues in Great Britain, including Wigmore Hall and the Purcell Room in London.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Apart from educational years in Luneburg and his later, well-documented trips to Lubeck and Berlin, Bach spent all his life within a relatively small area of his native Thuringia and neighbouring Saxony. The musical establishments of court, town and church together provided employment for very many musicians, and Bach, like generations of his forebears, carried on his musical life within this milieu. His manifold activities included violinist, keyboard virtuoso on both organ and harpsichord, consultant for organ-building and tuning, teacher and of course, composer. From this secure provincial anchorage the ripples of his fame spread far and wide.
These relatively narrow confines did not however limit the enquiring nature of Bach’s mind. His knowledge of and interest in the music of his contemporaries and predecessors in the German-speaking world, France and Italy was extensive and greatly influenced the way he composed. Thus he had a very clear idea of when he was composing in the ‘French’ or the ‘Italian’ style, often titling pieces accordingly but he was never bound by such stylistic conventions into producing imitations of other composers. Instead he used their music as a springboard for his own prodigious artistic imagination, making use of elements of their style in order to forge his own uniquely potent musical language.
The six Solo Cello Suites were written during Bach’s employment as Kapellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen. At this time, thanks to commissions for new work he was preoccupied with instrumental music of all kinds and characteristically, he came up with new ways of interpreting the accepted forms. The six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (BWV. 1001-6) extended and developed the German virtuoso violin tradition in works of unprecedented length and emotional scope, but the Cello Suites – also composed around 1720 – were, if anything, more radical.
At the time of their composition, the cello, seen by some as an upstart rival to the viola da gamba, was enjoying a rapid rise in popularity. However, it had very little solo music to its name and certainly nothing of this stature. Bach was familiar with the viola da gamba repertoire and wrote for it on occasion, but he instinctively understood and grasped the different expressive possibilities of the ‘newer’ instrument. (In fact cello and gamba were roughly contemporary. The bass viol had held the solo instrument field for a long time, only to be eclipsed by the cello for around 150 years.)
The idea of using a suite of dances as an instrumental form developed through the 16th and 17th centuries; the dances themselves mutating somewhat from country to country. Though Bach made use of many of the elements common to the late 17th-century suite in his own works, he characteristically combined in them a measure of organisation with a seriousness of intent which sets him apart from all other composers. The Cello Suites are arranged as a set in increasing order of complexity, from the relative simplicity of No.1 to the almost violinistic level of virtuosity required for No.6. Each has the same outward structure: four dance-derived movements, which by Bach’s time had become ‘standard’. These are the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, supplemented by an initial prelude and between the final two movements a pair of ‘galant’ courtly dances: menuets for the first two suites, bourrées for suites 3 and 4 and gavottes for 5 and 6. The mood and character of each suite has a unity which is clearly set by the prelude. In addition, movements within a suite are often closely linked thematically. Thus the listener, even if unconscious of the structure, experiences the suite as a unified whole.
In keeping with the above remarks about Bach’s relation to stylistic convention, we find that he treats all the movements of these suites with considerable freedom. The six Preludes fall into three fairly distinct types. Nos.1-4 are improvisatory in nature, mixing ostinato-like episodes with freer material. Suite 5 opens with a prelude and fugue and No. 6 with a toccata. In general, the dance movements show a tendency to want to break the mould as the set progresses. So, in Suites 1 and 2, we find pairs of perfectly ‘classical’ Minuets whose moderate tempo and regular phrase structure could easily have been danced to. By Suite 3 the Bourrées have become extended; further in Suite 4. The Gavottes of Suites 5 and 6 are more elaborate still and are pure instrumental pieces. In each case, contrast is offered by the second dance of each pair, sometimes by a change of mode. The most striking is perhaps in Suite 4, where the second Bourrée, by contrast with the frenetic activity of the first, is a gentle two-part piece in measured crotchet movement strongly reminiscent of the Chorale Prelude ‘Wachet Auf’.
The allemande was generally considered to be a serious, measured composition and in fact was often used as the opening movement of a suite (e.g. D minor Partita for Solo Violin BWV. 1004). However, the Allemande of Suite 3 is a much livelier piece than its companions, using little runs of quick notes and jumps across the strings within a slow tempo. The Allemande of Suite 6 is of another order altogether: slowed down to half the normal tempo, the piece becomes a drawn-out, meditative ‘Adagio’. The Courantes, with their leaping arpeggios and lively running figures are, apart from Suite 5, more akin to the Italian corrente (as found in Corelli) than the true French courante. They are often extravagantly virtuosic, almost approaching the ‘moto perpetuo’. Sarabandes in these suites are all slow, combining sensuous beauty with lofty ideas and sometimes introspection. They typically employ more chordal writing than the other movements, though a surprising exception is found in Suite 5. Here Bach presents us with a winding single line of great beauty, its yearning appoggiatura reminiscent of the ‘Et incarnatus’ section of the B minor Mass. The final two movements of the suites are often very virtuosic and mix in folk elements, such as bagpipe drones in the Gigue in Suites 2 and 3, and the second Gavotte in Suite 6. In the Gigue of Suite 4 and the second Gavotte of Suite 5, there is a constant triplet motion in the manner of an Irish jig.
Suite No. 5 is exceptional. It is the only true ‘French’ suite of the set. Interestingly, it exists in another – probably later – version for the lute (BWV. 995) which may explain its more overtly French quality, the lute being much favoured in France. Bach calls for a ‘scordatura’ or re-tuning of the instrument, the top string being tuned down from A to G. It opens with what is rather like an overture – a stately prelude built over an ‘organ pedal’, followed by a lively fugue, ingeniously realised by Bach so as to involve very little chordal playing. The rest of the suite retains this theatrical quality, especially in the grandeur of its regal Courante. The courante was an elaborate solo theatre dance in the French court, and was danced by Louis XIV himself. The Gavotte is elegant, with fully worked-out part writing, while the wistful second Gavotte is, by way of contrast, in a single line. The suite ends with a noble Gigue in dotted notes – the only piece in the suites to employ this distinctive rhythm.
Suite No. 6 takes us into yet further uncharted territory, written as it is for a five-stringed instrument, tuned CC GG D A e. This was most probably the ‘viola pomposa’, an instrument said to have been invented by Bach. In keeping with the smaller size and greater agility of the instrument, this suite is the most extravagantly virtuosic of the set. It has a pastoral quality – perhaps ‘outdoor’ would be a better word – established from the outset by the ‘hunting’ feel of the Prelude’s lilting 12/8 metre. There are also echoes of the whooping horn calls of the first Brandenburg concerto at the opening of this suite, and the horns return again, in party mood, for the final Gigue.
Solo instrumental performance is among the most engaging forms of music. The listener shares in the communion of player and instrument and is drawn inexorably into the composer’s world. Of all instruments it is perhaps the cello, whose wide range and affecting timbre is capable of tenderness, noble oratory or soul-searching introspection, which is best suited to affect this almost magical process.
In Bach’s Cello Suites, a compelling musical argument is expressed through a language which is apparently simple but also many-layered. It consists largely of a single melodic line, a significant part of which is in fact written-out ornamentation. In this respect Bach’s practice differed from that of many of his contemporaries who would often provide just a sketch which the performer would then elaborate ad libitum. In playing Bach we must therefore decide which notes are ornamental and which structural, so as to offer clear ‘signposts’ to guide the listener through the music. He or she then, by a process of unconscious suggestion akin to word-association, supplies the harmonic context for him or herself, creating the sense of a much bigger musical picture. It is this constant two-way exchange which, over and above the undeniable surface beauty of the music, gives these compositions their enduring fascination.
Taken as a whole the suites seem to be presenting a parallel journey to our journey through life and, wholly in keeping with Bach’s spiritual outlook, inviting us to aspire beyond the earthly realm. The dance – by its very nature expressive of Man’s relationship to the Earth – undergoes a process of abstraction during the course of these six works. They rise quite literally from earthy simplicity, confidently expressed at the outset by the cello’s resounding open G string, eventually to arrive at the rarefied heights of the final Allemande. In this extraordinary piece, with nearly all the notes played on the upper strings of the piccolo cello, suspended chains of silvery notes seem to show us a bridge to another world. In between these extremes, we feel, ‘all human life is there’.
Richard Tunnicliffe © 2012