Friday, October 5, 2018

Bach Solo Cello Suites on Kashkashian’s Viola

Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Exactly one week from today ECM New Series will release its latest album featuring performances by violist Kim Kashkashian. It will be a two-CD album consisting of performances of the six suites that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for solo cello, BWV 1007–1012. This will be her second ECM New Series album dedicated to Bach, but there has been a long gap between the two releases. The last one took place in 1991 and involved performances of Bach’s viola da gamba sonatas accompanied by Keith Jarrett at the harpsichord. As expected, is currently taking pre-orders for this new album.

By way of a disclaimer, I should note that listening to this album was not my first encounter with the Bach solo cello suites being played on viola. Over the course of two academic years at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), I had the good fortune to listen to violist Jodi Levitz give a pair of Faculty Artist Series recitals in February of 2013 and April of 2014, respectively. (As an aside, this was I time when I could expect to see Kashkashian make regular visits to SFCM to give Master Classes and perform with SFCM students and faculty; and these days I have come to miss those visits.)

From a technical point of view, there is not a great difference between the viola and the cello. Both instruments tune their four strings to the same pitch classes, the viola being an octave higher than the cello. Furthermore, Kashkashian was able to use a five-string viola to play the final suite in the set, BWV 1012 in D major, which would have had the same extended tuning found in the five-string cello for which Bach wrote that suite. In many respects the decision to play Bach cello music on a viola is less radical than opting for a contemporary instrument, rather than a “historical” one.

More important is the approach one takes to the suites themselves, all of which have the same basic form. Each suite begins with a Prelude, which is then followed by five movements all based on dance forms (which were most likely out of fashion when Bach wrote these pieces, probably between 1717 and 1723, during his service as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen). Nevertheless, Bach probably had strong memories of those dance forms, memories that may well have been shared by those playing or listening to the suites.

That last phrase raises another of my favorite issues. Regardless of who was playing on what instrument, I have long believed that Bach composed his solo instrumental compositions for pedagogical purposes. Thus, even where the act of listening is involved, rather than that of execution, it is worth considering that Bach was providing a series of “history lessons” that were further endowed with passages that would cultivate those technical skills necessary for the art of giving satisfactory performances.

This then raises the question of what constitutes “satisfactory” from the listener’s point of view. There is a good chance that Bach himself may never have thought that these suites would be played for an audience. Indeed, any thoughts about playing this music for anyone other than one’s teacher may have originated early in the twentieth century with Pablo Casals, who not only included the suites in his recital programs but also recorded the complete set. These days it seems as if any cellist wishing to make his/her mark is obliged to survey the complete set in a recital setting. Having experienced several of these traversals of the entire collection, I have to say that my greatest preference goes to Levitz. Three at a time is quite enough, and there is nothing wrong with waiting for a year to pass before encountering the other three!

Such an approach suggests that much more will be gained if the two Kashkashian CDs are approached with some significant interval of time (not necessarily as a long as a year) between them. Even then, however, I find that I tend to be most absorbed in any one of the suites when it is detached from the other five. Having said that, however, I still wish to grant a nod of approval to the way in which Kashkashian organized her first CD.

The fact is that the opening Prelude of the very first suite, BWV 1007 in G major, is so well known that it verges on being a cliché. Thus, as a listener, I appreciated Kashkashian’s decision to begin, instead, with BWV 1008 in D minor. For one thing, Bach tends to be bolder when working in the minor keys; and the opening Prelude for BWV 1008 could almost count for an aria for one of the Passion settings were not the extent of its melodic line so wide. Even where the dance forms are concerned, the minor-key settings tend to make the attentive listener sit up and attend all the more closely.

Kashkashian thus uses the entire BWV 1008 to serve as a prelude (of sorts) to BWV 1007. Thus, when she does arrive at the G major Prelude, it sounds more like a breath of fresh air than a worn-out old shoe. Mind you, there is nothing “worn-out” about any of the 36 individual movements in Bach’s collection; but the G major Prelude must still labor under the burden of excessive familiarity. Even so, however, any individual suite tends to stand better on its own than as one of the elements in a longer sequence.

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