From my inbox comes a nice question from Felicity in Colorado, which gives me a rare, and nice, chance to answer a cello related question.
“Dear Ken,” she writes, “when you’re playing the Bach Suites, do you use a baroque bow or baroque cello, what sort of A do you tune to and so on? I’m a freshman in college and trying work my way through them for the first time, having just learned bits of the first two in high school. Any tips for me as I work on them?”
That’s a huge question, and probably worth several whole posts, but here are a couple of quick thoughts.
I play Bach on my regular cello, which is a 1690 Italian instrument with a “modern” set up, and I do use an endpin. My bow is a Tourte copy, so also, “modern.” I’d love to own a baroque cello, but it’s hard to justify as I can fool almost anyone into thinking I’m playing a baroque instrument on mine (and its old, anyway!).
For me, the most important stylistic consideration in Bach is the vocabulary of bowstrokes I’m going to use. When I perform the Suites, I always use a baroque bow grip on my modern bow; that is, I hold the bow along the stick a few inches above the frog, and not at the frog where we hold the bow for more contemporary and romantic works. This kind of bow hold makes all of the string crossings and uneven groupings that are such an intrinsic part of the suites much more idiomatic. I would strongly, strongly, strongly encourage all young cellists to begin learning to switch back and forth between their “normal” grip and a baroque one from an early age. It helps to have a spare bow, as you’ll no doubt get some finger grease on the bow hair as you practice.
On the other hand, I also practice the suites almost anytime I get the cello out of the case using a modern grip, precisely because it is so unidiomatic that it challenges every aspect of my technique. If you can make the suites sound effortless, clean, articulate and idiomatic with a modern grip, you’ll have a flexibility and precision when you come to later music that will really serve you well. If you’re playing say, the Thrid for a recital, try preparing it with a baroque grip and then warming up every day with a different movement from one of the others with a modern grip.
When you’re young it’s so easy to fall into the trap of feeling too much time pressure as you try to learn each suite for lessons and recitals. You have your whole life to work on them, and from the beginning, it’s good to get to grips with the idea that they exist as much for us to learn from as to perform.
I’m not too bothered about playing at a lower pitch- there is enough evidence now that says pitch in that era varied so widely that I don’t see the point in tuning down, although 440 is really high enough, and anything beyond 442 is too much for Bach. Some American, Japanese and German music schools that have their students playing at 444 and upwards are making the instruments so tight (higher pitch means more tension on the instrument) that it’s almost impossible to get them to speak easily and ring effortlessly (and it is bad for the instruments).
Everyone’s got their favourite recordings of the Bach Suites- mine right now is Pieter Wispelwey’s, but what you should really listen to is OTHER BACH. So many cellists play these pieces as if the only Bach they’ve ever heard is other cellists playing the same pieces, and as a result, we hear them with a lack of rhythmic spine that is totally foreign to the music. Remember, they’re dance suites, not cadenzas.