Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bach in the Time of COVID-19

This afternoon public media organization PRX joined forces with Boston Public Television station WGBH to present a streamed performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The program, which lasted about two and one-quarter hours and was “live-only,” was devoted entirely to the six solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1007–1012, played in the order of their catalog numbers. This is one of Bach’s most systematically organized collections. Each suite consists of a Prelude movement followed by five dance movements. Four of the dance forms are identical in all of the suites, the second through fourth movements (Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande) and the conclusion (Gigue). The fifth movement is always in ternary (ABA) form; but there are three different styles, each of which appears in two of the suites. The overall ordering is two Minuets, two Bourrées, and two Gavottes.

Most likely Bach composed these when he was at Köthen as part of his duties as Kapellmeister. (This would have been between 1717 and 1723.) It is not unreasonable to guess that the suites were written for pedagogical purposes, rather than for an audience of listeners. Indeed, they received almost no attention in concert halls until Pablo Casals not only included them in his recitals but also recorded them. Whether or not Casals had any influence on Ma’s approach to playing these pieces, we do know that Ma played in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra when Casals was its conductor.

Casals’ decision to “publicize” the suites may have motivated a remark attributed to Wanda Landowska, regardless of whether or not she actually said it:
You play Bach your way, Pablo; and I’ll play it his!
Actually, Casals seemed to be as aware of Bach’s pedagogical intentions as anyone familiar with even the most casual biography of the composer. Indeed, Bernard Greenhouse (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) documented his experiences in studying with Casals with particular emphasis on playing the cello suites. (Those experiences were documented in Donald Schön’s book Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, and they prompted a relatively early article on this site.) It is clear that Casals was as much a stickler for expressiveness and underlying technique in equal measure. His approaches to interpretation may have differed from those taken by Landowska, but they were still true to Bach’s spirit.

Ma’s own approach to technique was certainly not weak. Nevertheless, it was inconsistent, particularly when linked to his capacity for expressiveness. Most importantly Ma never found convincing ways to express the spirit of dance behind all those movements cutting across the six suites. For that matter he also had trouble bringing expressiveness to the opening movement, even when Bach used that movement to “play around” with the conventional coupling of prelude and fugue.

As a result I suspect that most listeners, whether well informed or only modestly experienced, are likely to have experienced fatigue over the course of this broadcast, possibly even before the halfway mark. One can certainly appreciate the good intentions behind this project. Sadly, however, Bach was not well served by those intentions. No one seemed to care very much that Bach was being treated as a monument, rather than a working musician; and this misconceived approach to video media may be one of the reasons why I almost never watch PBS offerings any more.

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