Bach and the cello suites, Part I

IBM Selectric

There are certain very specific and individualized sounds we associate with childhood. The heavy thunk! of the lock to the front door of the house I grew up in Midtown, the screech of the subway as it rolled into 51st and Lex, a loose tile halfway down the hall that rocked when stepped on, my mother’s IBM Selectric clacking away. There was music too: the Budapest String Quartet, violinist Joseph Szigeti, baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau; this was the soundtrack of my youth.

Link to Bach Cello Suite No 2 in D minor by Pablo Casals on Youtube

My father was a landscape photographer (https://www.johnyangphoto.com) and his work kept him occupied either swishing negatives back and forth in trays of ridiculously carcinogenic chemicals or out in the field shooting. After work he would sit quietly in the living room, martini or scotch in hand (depending on the season), listening to music. King in our home was the Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals. His recording of the Bach suites was a constant presence. This was the default, the performance by which any other recording of Bach must be measured. As a kid, I worried I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between recordings; blindfolded, could I distinguish between Casals and Pierre Fournier or Jacqueline Du Pre? I voiced my fears to my dad and he replied “you’ll know.”

It’s true; no one sounds like Casals. Case in point, his performance of Bach’s second cello suite in D minor is so personal, so individual. The music is peppered with expressive little glissandi (slides), he uses his vibrato expressively instead of slathered uniformly over the music. His timing within each phrase is idiosyncratic: sometimes he sits on a note, i n t e r r u p t i n g the flow…, only to speed and make up the time afterwards. Such intuitive understanding of rhythm can’t be taught.

Pablo Casals - 1940 Citroën Traction Avant

Casals’ distinctive approach valued pure expression (“what are you trying to say?”) over beauty of sound (“wow, what an amazing voice!”). If Casals were an automobile, I’d liken him to a 1940 Citroën Traction Avant: aristocratic, earnest, romantic, part of a grand tradition of music making.


Link to Youtube for recording by Yo-Yo Ma

For the general public in the 1980s, it wasn’t Casals but the sensation that was Yo-Yo Ma who owned the Bach suites. To many, Casals’ anachronistic and grumpy style seemed hopelessly outdated when contrasted with Yo-Yo’s luminous perfection. In Bach’s second suite, Yo-Yo’s lyricism comes off as effortless, preternaturally smooth, mournful to Casals’ tragic. When I listen to Casals, I think of Casals; when I listen to Yo-Yo, I’m less aware of the individuality of the performer than the luxuriousness of his sound, one ravishing phrase after another. The craftsmanship, both musical and technical, is exquisite. Yo-Yo conjures for me a top-of-the-line late model Mercedes S-Class, his cello purring with a quiet power that practically drives itself.

Yo-Yo Ma and a state-of-the-art 2023 Mercedes S-Class


Enter: Anner Bylsma. In high school I read a review in the Times about a new recording by a Dutch cellist with a peculiar name. Curious, I picked up his boxed set of the Suites at Tower Records. It changed how I thought about music.

I’d had no idea Bach could be played this way. Yo-Yo sings whereas Bylsma speaks. Part of a wave of “period” players to emerge in the late 20th Century seeking to envision this music as it would have been heard in 1720, Bylsma wound up somehow sounding bracingly modern.

YouTube link to recording by Anner Bylsma

What does “period” playing mean? The term refers to historical performance practice where musicians study centuries-old techniques on how musicians played stylistically way back when, while also retrofitting their instruments to original designs. Starting in the 18t Century, as music moved out of churches and salons into grand concert halls, instruments evolved to became more powerful. Violins were reinforced, metal strings replaced sheep gut (yes, and eyech….), creating a more brilliant sound, and the shape of the violin bow changed drastically allowing for an emphasis on power and dazzling new virtuosic techniques.

Rehearsing a 200-year-old piece of music can lead to a lot of arguments about “what the composer really wanted.” But playing on modern instruments will always be different since a modern violin’s set-up, for example, despite outward appearances, is significantly different from how it was built in the 18t century. Period players are a kind of time traveler, trying to imitate exactly what Bach, say, or Beethoven, had at their disposal.

I had the good fortune to see Bylsma perform Bach on multiple occasions and his interpretations varied enormously. His playing was fleet, maneuverable, able to turn on a dime. You can hear the actual physical mechanics at work: the slap of his fingers, little squeaks of the bow. The music darts forward, then relaxes, immediate and alive. There is an oratorical aspect to Bylsma’s playing, closer to an actor than a singer, almost like he is speaking in sentences versus singing in phrases. I find his Bach D Minor to be almost anxious, not forlorn like Yo-Yo or heartbreaking like Casals: hence three pieces, three recordings, the same piece sounding completely different.

Anner Bylsma and a 1965 Alfa Romeo Sprint GT
Quick, responsive, intimate, and you feel every bloody bump in the road


There are other great recordings: Antonio Meneses brings a folksy lilt, Pieter Wispelway (another Dutch period player) brings out the improvisational element, Boris Pergamenschikow merges a period approach with a modern instrument, Rostropovich, Isserlis, Fournier, the list is long. A cursory internet search revealed over 200 recordings out there. Bylsma himself recorded the entire set twice (I prefer the first recording). There isn’t one right way to play this music but there are wrong ways. Who gets to decide?  

David Yang, Artistic Director

YouTube link to Alpha Romeo riding in a race
The music of a ’65 Alfa: is it hot in here or is that just me?
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