The great poet Robert Frost suggested that choosing the road less traveled can make all the difference. For some, that is just not an option. Take the life of a professional cello soloist. There just isn’t the same large body of repertoire for the cello that there is for, say, a violin or piano. As a cellist, one cannot help but plow fields that have been well tilled by many great players of the past (and present, for that matter). A cellist cannot help but take a road more traveled.
Some of my favorite pieces of music for the cello are the Six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Pablo Casals was the first to record the complete set of six suites, and every cellist of any renown has followed his example. Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Tortelier, and any other name you can mention has offered up a performance. One of the interesting things about these pieces is that we do not have the original manuscript to refer to, like a violinist has for the Bach Solo Partitas. All we have are copies made in the hand of other individuals, including Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann’s second wife. These copies do not all agree on articulations and slurs, leaving us without a prime “urtext” manuscript of Bach’s directions. There is no single agreed upon version of the articulations, which leaves each great cellist room to make some of their own choices.
Each of the six suites are divided into six movements, and are almost identical in the structure of those parts. The first movement of each is a Prelude, with parts 2-4 and 6 being an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue in each suite. The only variation is in the fifth movements of each suite, where Bach has given us a Minuet, Borreee or Gavotte in this place. After the opening prelude, these are all Baroque dance forms, i.e. specific rhythmic formulas used in dances from Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Spain. Now, I am not the person to look to for help in learning any of these dances, sober or otherwise. For our purpose, it is enough to know that Bach had to work within the prescribed pattern of each dance he was composing. What wonderful music he produced.
My newest and currently favorite recording of the Six Suites is by the Russian-American cellist, Nina Kotova. This was released just a short time ago, in September, and has really grown on me since I started listening to it. On the surface, it is very well recorded from a sound engineering perspective. It is a real treat, because Kotova plays on a 1673 du Pré Stradivarius cello that makes some of the most gorgeous sound ever heard by human ears. A Stradivarius-made instrument is one of those rare things in life that lives up to all the hype, especially in an expert’s hands. In this recording, as with everything else I have heard by Ms. Kotova, she shows why she is more than worthy of playing this instrument.
My favorite of the six suites in this recording is the last, in D Major, with its energetic and joyful tone. It is possible that Bach conceived this sixth suite for a now-obsolete baroque variation of a cello that had five strings, not four. Nina Kotova shows all the virtuosity required to perform the extended range of the D Major suite on the modern four string cello. All of the cello suites are technically challenging, but the sixth contains virtuosic passages and parts that seem like cadenzas, more than any of the preceding five suites. Ms. Kotova shows off accomplished technique and great musicality in this recording.
You can tell which pieces of classical music are my all time favorites by how many different recordings are on my CD shelf. Nina Kotova has given me my fourth different performance of the Bach Cello Suites, and it is a worthy comrade to the other three. Kotova, like her Stradivarius cello, lives up to the hype as “a fantastically gifted cellist” (Newsweek) and “a musician of high seriousness and real talent”(Time). Check it out for yourself on Spotify