Bach’s Cello Suites were, without a doubt, the most monumental examples of polyphonic compositions for a solo string instrument that had appeared in music up to that time. In his pursuit to create polyphonic music at all costs, Bach broke through the technical frontiers of the cello. The enormous technical difficulties they represent are not examples of virtuosity but rather the natural result of both the complexity of his musical ideas and his extensive knowledge of the idiom and performance techniques. In the music of these Suites, which is in principle made up of a single voice, the musical impression created is that of several melodic lines which develop freely and simultaneously. Although composers such as Gaultier and Schenk hadRead more experimented before Bach with ‘quasipolyphony’ in their music for lute and viola da gamba respectively, it was the Cello Suites of Bach which, more than any other pieces, introduced this compositional approach. This new manner of writing was introduced in ingenious fashion and represented a new apogee in music.
"Playing these six suites on the violin is, of course, quite a different proposition. With its smaller resonating body, the violin speaks more quickly and the immediacy of sound enables it to be more flexible, flighty and agile than the more circumspect and gravitational cello. The dances therefore feel especially idiomatic for the violin when they’re played a little faster than you might be accustomed to on the cello. At first, I missed the resonance in the slower movements – for instance in the Sarabandes – but then I started to relish delving into the gut strings to cajole as much resonance as I could from the chords of those slow dances.
Discovering the preludes on the violin was, perhaps, the purest of the joys. It felt like a luxury to have the chance to reconstitute them for the violin. The first prelude has the same recognisability as the first prelude of Well-Tempered Clavier (Book One) with an irresistibly approachable flow; the second is more mysterious with its chromatic narration; the third starts bright and breezy and turns complex and knotty in extended arpeggios before a rhetorical ending has us arriving at an expected destination; the fourth is virtuosic and athletic; the fifth with its scordatura tuning is dark and pungent, even brooding. Finally, the sixth is the consummation and affirmation of belief: utterly radiant and life-affirming.
I play the first five suites tuned a fifth and an octave above the original pitch. The Sixth Suite is a different case altogether as it’s written for 5-string cello, the top string being an E. An attempt to play it on a 5-string viola or violin ended in a decision to return to my own violin, with the help of a viola C string for the few low phrases in the piece. The rest was left to my clever producing and editing team! (Rachel Podger)
In Podger’s hands the Suites sound altogether new, not like a higher-pitched copy of the familiar cello works but like something written for her own instrument. Played on the cello, these sets of stylized dances sit companionably with you beside the ballroom floor. Here, on the violin, they drag you up on to your feet and whirl you around. That’s partly to do with the buoyancy of Podger’s playing, full of agile twists and turns, and partly because some movements naturally flow faster on the violin.