Bach: Cello Suites Nos. 1, 4 & 5

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Cello Suites Nos 1, 4 & 5 (transcribed for viola)
PERFORMER: Maxim Rysanov (viola)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS SACD-1783

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According to CPE Bach, his father enjoyed playing viola more than any other instrument, so JS may well have been perfectly happy with these transcriptions. (If you go along with Professor Jarvis’s dubious theory that Anna Magdalena wrote these suites you may conjecture that JS wouldn’t have been bothered either way.)

Of course, Bach was not averse to re-treading his own works, and adapted the Fifth Suite for lute with the expectation, scholars believe,
that it would be further amended by performers to make it more idiomatic for the lute.

Even so, he conceived these suites for cello and what translates them from ‘mere’ surpassingly brilliant displays of composition at the pinnacle of chamber music achievement to sublimely moving and magical spiritual and sensual experiences is the colour and texture of the
cello, its particularly human quality.

That said, you can hardly blame performers on other instruments for coveting these transcendent masterpieces. The first known transcriptions for viola date from 1916, when the suites were still generally neglected in any form.


Like The Art of Fugue, they were widely regarded as technical exercises, not appropriate for performance as such, so who cared what instrument was used?

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Rysanov eschews both puritan authenticity and inappropriate Romantic emoting. His phrasing pays due acknowledgment to the suites’ dance roots. Barry Witherden