Friday, April 9, 2010

The Cello Suites

A note of warning to any string player who reads "The Cello Suites—J.S.Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece" by Eric Siblin. You may experience a sudden desire to revisit the works of J.S.Bach, as if for the first time, after reading this engaging book, and wish to compare various artists in their interpretative quests to play this timeless music.

Eric Siblin, an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and former pop music critic braids together the lives of J.S.Bach and cellist, Pablo Casals, in a literary style that is immensely entertaining for music lovers and lay people. Like a set of nesting dolls, or boxes within boxes, the discovery of one tale leads to another; an attempt to solve the mystery of the manuscript's disappearance in the eighteenth century, Pablo Casals' historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late-nineteenth century, how passion, religious beliefs and political values shaped the lives of Bach and Casals, and finally, how the suites continue to thrive and evolve in the hands of various musicians, classical, jazz artists, and rock musicians alike. "The greatness of Bach's music," admits cellist Mischa Maisky, "is that it doesn't belong to any time or place."

After rummaging through a Barcelona music shop for sheet music at the age of thirteen with his father, and finding the mysterious manuscript in a dark corner, Casals played the suites every day for twelve years before gathering the courage to perform  them in public. Even in his nineties, Casals kept a routine of playing the Bach Suites beginning with the first suite on Monday, followed by the second on Tuesday, and so on. Casals explained to writer and peace activist Norman Cousins late in his life that Bach touched him "here"—and placed his hand over his heart.

This reminds me of the fierce determination violinist Joseph Silverstein demonstrated while offering up all six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas in performance. These one-time events, in honor of Silverstein's seventieth birthday, were presented as fund-raisers for organizations close to his heart; Northwest Chamber Orchestra among them. 

Mr. Siblin is aware that period police have not been impressed with Casals' style. "These hard-liners dismiss him as more Romantic than authentic" writes the author. Siblin makes a valid point by stating that audience  tastes have changed radically since the eighteenth century, and remaining open-minded to allow for today's listeners might not be a bad idea. From my own past experience, one critic, a Pippy Longstalker, trashed every performance that made use of modern instruments and vibrato. But then, maybe it caused too much static in her hearing aid.

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