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Classical Notes

How I Like My Bach

Posted at 5:11 PM on May 1, 2012 by Emily Reese
Filed under: Johann Sebastian Bach

I was preparing for an interview and, naturally, I got pulled into that Internet vortex — listening to recordings and watching videos of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suites.

There are dozens of videos. Dozens and dozens and dozens.

In the classical music world, we frequently hear the term "interpreter" thrown around — as in, the performer is a wonderful interpreter of Beethoven Piano Sonatas or that conductor is a brilliant interpreter when it comes to Mahler's symphonies.

Same goes for Bach, of course. There are a load of questions facing performers of Baroque music, not least of which is this: to romanticize, or not?

Since this is a blog, and blogs inherently spew personal opinions, I'm here to say something.

Don't romanticize it.

It's not how I want my Bach. I want it more like this:

Less like this:

First of all, I adore Pablo Casals. The first recordings I bought of the Cello Suites? Played by Casals.

The difference between the two here is subtle. Casals most certainly performs the Prelude with more rubato (like a relaxation of time, or liberty with the tempo of the piece) than Rostropovich. But to me, that subtle rubato destroys the momentum of the line.

I think of it like this: rubato is a bit like a drunk person trying to walk straight. There is no measured rhythm to their steps as they navigate the path ahead. I prefer to think of Bach, and virtually all of Baroque music, as a nice walk in your most comfortable shoes. It's second nature. There is no anguished thought behind your steps. You just GO.

The simplicity and journey of the individual line... how that line creates the impression of more than what's there on its own — this is what I find beautiful in Bach's music.

So, while Casals manipulates time to create his version of the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, Rostropovich rather spices up his performance by concentrating on dynamics. There isn't even a dynamic marking on the original manuscript, so even Rostropovich is adding elements absent from the written page.

I don't pretend to know exactly how J.S. Bach wanted his cello suites performed. I just know that when it comes to Bach, I want my coffee black.

For an easier distinction between rubato and, well, not rubato, watch MIscha Maisky perform the Prelude, then go back and listen to Rostropovich.