WickedEye's Quotient

2/10/2014 at 20:08

The Most Glittering Kind of Poetry

How could anybody think of Bach as 'cold' when these suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry?
-Pau [Pablo] Casals


{Written September 19, 2012—for Bea and Omy, with much love.}

No composer will ever surpass Bach in my mind and heart; and few of his works have touched both so deeply as his Cello Suites.

I love most stringed instruments, but the cello has a special place in that pantheon. Its tones combine warmth and plangence, caress and demand, in a way I've never experienced with any other sound.

So of course I would love Bach's treatment of the cello best…of course I would; I love his treatment of everything best. And if I think his primary preoccupation—breaking the world into chords, then reordering it to refract shadow and light and fear and beauty, as it should—is particularly well-suited to the Scheherazadic strains of the cello, then perhaps that’s to be expected.

There is all this at the back when I listen to Bach’s Cello Suites. Yet even so, his first, in G minor, moves me as little else can. Its Prelude is certainly well-known for good reason; in no other music is the sumptuous timbre of the cello so well mated with the lucent, nuanced use of metal, wood, horsehair, and air at which Bach excels.

Pau Casals and Yo-Yo Ma are sublime envoys of that sound. In Yo-Yo Ma's hands, Bach is pellucid, serene, transcendent—the composer I fell in love with at 17. But Casals…in Pau Casals’ hands, the cello is ardent—fervent and earnest in a way I have heard nowhere else.

It is near-miraculous to me that the Suites can be played with such overwhelming feeling, plaint and paean and passion thrumming through the sound in a way that might startle the Kapellmeister himself. Perhaps that feeling rings so clearly because when I was last in Puerto Rico I saw an exhibit on Casals—Casals whose first cello was made from a gourd; Casals who found a copy of the Cello Suites in a thrift shop when he was 13, spent the next decade of his life learning them…and then the following six decades mastering them.

No-one has ever played Bach on the cello as Casals does. Perhaps that is because no other cellist has ever spent so much of his life consumed—and transported—by both the instrument, and the man who mastered its song.

Pau Casals playing Bach's Cello Suite No.1, Prelude; performed 1954, at Abbaye Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.

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