|About this Recording
GP847-48 - BACH, J.S.: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 1007-1012 (arr. E. Bindman for piano) (E. Bindman)
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685–1750)
The genius of J.S. Bach is recognised and revered by everyone who is musically educated. His output, studied by the greatest composers and the youngest apprentices alike, has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration, imitation and renewal. One common method of renewal is through transcription. As a matter of fact Bach himself regularly transcribed his own and other composers’ music and created different instrumental versions of the same piece. This transcribing practice has persisted and is still very much alive, as evidenced by many current recordings, including this one. Approaches can be as diverse as Bach’s body of work, depending on the form of the original composition, the designated instrumentation and the goal of the arranger. The resulting musical statement may be a faithful reproduction (my personal preference), a transformation beyond recognition or something in between. Regardless of the outcome, the original source is of such exceptional depth and appeal that for the past three centuries it attracted a steady stream of pilgrims, ready to sacrifice their time and energy for the joy of communion.
The six unaccompanied Cello Suites are a mysterious set among Bach’s instrumental cycles. There is no definitive surviving autograph and we know little about their performance history until young Pablo Casals, browsing in an old music shop, ‘discovered’ them in 1889. Yet numerous 19th-century arrangements are evidence of earlier admiration of this minimalist rarity. How was writing one note at a time different for the author of polyphonic gems like the Brandenburg Concertos? When he heard the music inwardly, as composers do before penning those black symbols of notation, did a single line resonate more deeply? Was he writing ‘for the glory of God’ or did he feel as if God was revealing a message to be transmitted? Certainly, when we listen to the Cello Suites we hear something beyond music, something that captures our full attention. We hear a serene voice, close to human in timbre, speaking a language we intuitively understand, somehow drawing us into a dialogue.
Bach first became my beacon when I was about ten years old. I remember sneaking a peek at my piano teacher’s notebook and seeing the words ‘plays Bach well’ under my name. That vote of confidence shaped my musical identity and, decades later, allowed me to accomplish the task of transcribing (and recording) the six Brandenburg Concertos for piano duet. During that lengthy process I was asked by an amateur pianist friend to arrange the Sonatina from Cantata BWV 106 because the versions she found were either too difficult or unsatisfactory. Welcoming a fun diversion from the Brandenburgs, I was struck by how ‘pianistic’ the results felt. It was clear that many amateur pianists could benefit from similar adaptations, as (in my teaching experience) they usually spend months trying to master even a twopart invention. Subsequent transcriptions led to Stepping Stones to Bach – two volumes of 24 intermediate piano arrangements which included three movements from the Cello Suites. Inspired by how gratifying it felt to play those, I researched existing piano versions of the complete Suites and was surprised not to come across any that were true to the original.
The only straightforward piano transcription of any movements of the Suites, dating from 1914, is by Russian pianist and impresario Alexander Siloti (1863–1945). Siloti, a student of Liszt, produced many arrangements, typically adding other voices, octaves and other elaborations, in the Romantic piano virtuoso fashion. Interestingly, and happily, he chose a no-frills approach for his Four Studies after the Cello Suites of J.S. Bach, selecting Preludes from Suite No. 1 and No. 3, the Courante from Suite No. 1 and Bourrées from Suite No. 3. Discovering Siloti’s admirable but very partial effort gave me resolve to arrange the complete 36 movements as closely to the original as possible. Playing through other variously enhanced old piano versions, including an arrangement of all six Suites by Joachim Raff (c. 1869–71) and of Suites Nos. 2, 3 and 5 by Leopold Godowsky (1924), I became further convinced that the Suites didn’t need any ‘improvement’. The ambiguity of the implied harmony Bach creates is far more intriguing and beautiful than any consonance we can suggest. Furthermore, while a lower register accompaniment for a violin piece may act ‘supportive’, a treble harmonic layer is more of a distraction from the cello voice due to our auditory system’s predisposition for higher frequency sounds. For the exceptional content of the Cello Suites to be a satisfactory experience, the only suitable backdrop would be silence.
The process of translating solo cello to the piano revealed many insights and surprises to me. As in the introductory passages to the keyboard Toccatas, dividing the material between two hands was idiomatically fitting and opened up many different interpretive options. New tone colour possibilities arose for underscoring the rhythmic patterns and implied contrapuntal texture. Viewing the entire score as a piano transcription was also a curious experience. Pianists normally take in a lot more information in Bach – confluences of polyphonic patterns plus a harmonic, ‘vertical’ aspect – and mentally juggling all that demands intense concentration. Stripped down to the bare syllables, the vocabulary of the Cello Suites becomes crystal clear in a piano score. One can’t help but zoom in on the music’s conceptual continuity yet divisibility into links of patterns, on that mysterious mathematical grace and flexibility of structure which makes Bach’s art so organic and endless.
As far as adjustments due to the different capabilities of the instruments, the overriding one was slightly faster tempi on the piano, especially in the Sarabandes. The increased speed also helps make the harmonic structure more discernible. Some notes in the broken chord framework had to be transposed (as in the case of perfect fifths which acquire an awkward intonation on the piano), replaced or omitted altogether. Sometimes I opted to not arpeggiate a chord, for greater variety and rhythmic unity, especially in faster movements. And of course, many bass notes ended up sustained, dropped down an octave or doubled for tonal depth and contrast.
Any discussion of the interpretive outcomes of this transcription would have to begin with the Preludes, by far the most distinctive movements in each Suite. The iconic G major Prelude of Suite No. 1, the ‘face’ of the entire set, has an immutable quality, like Prelude No. 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and sounds similar to the original on the piano. To me, the second Prelude, in melancholy D minor, is a search in darkness, wavering between disquiet and despair. It also sounds very similar on a keyboard but an adjustment of using a semiquaver broken chord pattern in the last five bars was made for continued momentum. Prelude No. 3, built on elemental C major scale and arpeggio patterns (which continue through the Allemande and Courante), emerges faster on the piano and ends up as quite jolly. Prelude No. 4 is in the key of E flat major which, although difficult for the cello, is extremely idiomatic on the piano. It’s hard to believe that these Schubertian arpeggios, celestial grace descending, weren’t meant for a keyboard. Prelude No. 5 is the contrasting middle statement in the second half of the cycle. A dramatic French overture arises from the depths of a C minor pedal point and is followed by a complex dance-like section which sounds like a fugue playing hide-and-seek with itself. Prelude No. 6 is another example of favourable transformation as it turns into a mini percussive piano toccata, with characteristic repeated notes and shorter time values toward the end, further increasing the energy level.
Of the dance movements, the Sarabandes are the soul of the Suites where I endeavoured to imitate the cello sound most closely. Without the marvellous baritone register of a Bösendorfer that would have been a lot more difficult. I tried to distinguish the characters of each of the six Allemandes and Courantes, depending on their time signatures and rhythmic subdivisions, and to contrast them with adjacent movements. The pairs of Minuets, Bourrées and Gavottes are wonderfully playful and seemed appropriate for some adventurous interpretation. Some Gigues are dignified and sound like German hunting horn calls, others are more wild. Gigue No. 4 could probably pass for an Irish jig, were it transposed two octaves up and a half tone down into D major. Overall, Suite No. 6 especially blossoms on the keyboard, as it reaches a full octave above middle C and is the most fully voiced of the set.
This recording contains a variety of embellishments upon repeats, some conventional and some more original. Of the former, I use trills, mordents, etc., changing registers and filling in some of the phrases in the Sarabandes, as Bach indicated in his keyboard Suites. On the less trodden path, I repeat the Allemande of Suite No. 1 as a constant stream of semiquaver notes because it works well and creates a fitting continuum with the Prelude. I attempt to give the very familiar Bourrée I from Suite No. 3 a fresh character and use short imitative counterpoint to offset the lonely minor of Bourrée II. And Gavotte II of Suite No. 6 naturally called to mind the popular Musette from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, also in D major. If a second section of a double dance movement reiterates the theme from the first section and is four times longer, I don’t repeat it. Using occasional rhythmic patterns already present in a movement is another embellishment alternative I draw on. I find it ironic that while during Bach’s lifetime improvising embellishments was an endorsed practice, 300 years later musicians are expected to choose between conformist ornamentation or none at all.
When the score of my transcription is published, I hope others will benefit from the tremendous learning experience I had while studying the Cello Suites through a piano ‘lens’. Piano notation is the most common medium for musicians and through it we can all really get to know and understand the basic elements of Bach’s extraordinary communication. I am particularly happy about introducing this new arrangement to amateur pianists, many of whom have already expressed their thanks to me for being able to enjoy simpler versions of their beloved composer’s works.
This will be a chance to experience great music without the stress of the prolonged efforts they face when attempting difficult counterpoint. Of course, these pieces will also be extremely useful for piano students of all ages, and not only as finger exercises. (Incidentally, during preparation for this recording my fingers were in better shape than ever, the first Prelude alone is excellent for the 4th and 5th fingers of the right hand and hence for better trilling). The movements are fantastic for practicing bass clef reading and some are suitable for the left hand alone. They are great tools for developing legato and sharing a melody with both hands, as well as relaxation/freedom of movement in both arms. The score allows for easy appreciation of patterns, interval sequences, implied counterpoint and the general shape and beauty of Bach’s linear thought, preparing a student for understanding the same elements in more complex textures and longer structures. Finally, this new piano version of the Cello Suites can sufficiently shift one’s attention from logistical obstacles to cultivating tone and expression, to training the ear. The practice of listening to oneself is the only true path to musicianship. If this arrangement helps someone along this path, my goal will be accomplished.
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