Konrad Horny, Eisenach  Schlosberg, 1800, credit Wikipedia. Eisenach was J S Bach’s birthplace


Selma Gokcen and Kenneth Cooper, Bach Revealed: A Player’s Guide to the Solo Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, Volume One – Suites I and III BWV 1007–1008, reviewed by Joseph Spooner

Judging by the designations given to musical events, it is not uncommon for composers to be ‘revealed’, even when that composer’s works are staples of concert life and their author has been the focus of intense intellectual endeavour for decades. Beethoven has been ‘revealed’ more than once recently. Such events, of course, perform important functions: engaging audiences who are already interested in Classical Music, but inviting them to listen differently, and engaging those who are interested in Classical Music, but feel alienated by standard presentations of it. The revelation to which Gokcen and Cooper aspire could not be more different, aiming as it does to understand Bach’s suites for solo cello –a cornerstone of the repertoire – at a profound level. An exercise of this sort might seemingly be the preserve of such groups, but the subtitle, A Player’s Guide, indicates the work’s intended audience; other groups may however be also be drawn to this– those interested in Bach who are able to read music, analysts, etc. This is certainly not an edition as it is commonly understood, even though it has been termed such in the foreword to Bach Revealed by several of those commending the project. No comparisons with editions can or should be offered, but mention should be made of the splendid Urtext package published by Bärenreiter, which reproduces all the original sources and provides the materials for any performer to create their own edition.

In his introduction, Cooper states that the work’s overarching aim is ‘to discover the dance rhythm within [the dances’ ornamentation]’, so that we do not end up ‘hearing (or playing) continuous melody without any sort of internal rhythm’. This is a natural aspiration for any performer or teacher of the suites in the dance movements. Cooper goes on to provides useful notes on the structure of the suites and the Baroque dance forms they feature, as well as brief notes on performance practice; the introductory material in the Urtext is comparable, though rather wider in scope on performance practice. Both works agree on the necessity for understanding the nature of the dance forms, though approach the matter in (stimulatingly) different ways. The sequence of dances in each of Bach’s cello suites is prefaced with a prelude, but both Bach Revealed and the Urtext are somewhat short on the nature of this purely instrumental form that raises a set of issues very different from those associated with the dances.

Gokcen outlines the principal aims of the musical text of Bach Revealed in her foreword: to set forth the underlying two-, three and sometimes four-voice textures in versions for two, three or four cellos; to provide the implied bass line; and to simplify the melodic line and thereby clarify what is structural versus what is ornamental. The volume for Suites I and II offers a single melody line and a bass line for each movement the two suites. These versions find an immediate practical application in a pedagogic environment, with teacher and student able to take one line each. I tried this with two students; one felt that this musical text would help the learner understand the voice leading, the other reached straightway for an edition to make comparisons; both outcomes are potentially positive. The bass line consists both of notes taken from the actual text and, as said, implied bass notes. In his ‘Bach in Colours’ approach to the cello suites, the cellist Ulrich Heinen also strives to identify the bass line, colouring actual notes in blue and implied notes in red. (A record of the London Cello Society’s presentation of this is available online: I was surprised to find that Heinen and Gokcen/Cooper do not actually agree in all instances on what the bass line is: there are discrepancies of detail relating to passing notes, though these are perhaps not of particular import, but in the prelude to Suite I alone there are two significant places where different implied bass notes are supplied. Although I prefer Heinen in one case and Cooper/Gokcen in the other, one should not venture a view as to the correctness of one or the other, as the music thrives on such ambiguities. Consideration of such differences could be stimulating, but anyone seeking definitive answers in Bach Revealed should proceed with informed care.

Cooper/Gokcen’s notion that the preludes have a melodic line in the same way that the dance movements do is thought-provoking. For me, the exquisitely ornamented harmonies of the preludes to Suites I and II are not what I would deem ‘melody’. I challenged a colleague to identify the ‘melody’ in the prelude to Suite I, and her solution was rather different to that of Cooper/Gokcen, and indeed the various possibilities I would have supplied. In the dance movements, while it is a relatively straightforward matter to separate the ‘melody’ and (implied) bass lines, it is a less straightforward task to then simplify the melody line in order to distinguish between what is ornamentation and what is not. As with the implied bass notes mentioned, I was struck on occasion by the choices made, particularly where, owing to simplification of the rhythm, the placing of the notes of the constructed Ur-melody does not coincide with those of the line in Bach’s text.

The notion of ‘voicing’ is used very frequently in the teaching of the Bach cello suites. Separating the principal and bass lines is clearly a necessary step towards understanding this. Yet voicing is also called for within the melodies of the dance movements as well as the lines of the preludes: there are many examples of two-way and three-way conversations in the first two suites (presumably the textures to which Cooper/Gokcen refer) that the single melody lines in this volume do not convey. These duets may therefore be of more help for understanding overall structure and harmonic progression than as aids to the performance of individual motifs. This is in fact made clear in the foreword: ‘Questions about performance of these suites – appropriate tempo, character, articulation, and voicing, for example – can be considered in relation to each other when the underlying structure is clearly understood.’ If it is appreciated that Bach Revealed is but one possible step in a complex process, then the user will find stimulus for the imagination here.

Joseph Spooner is a leading interpreter of the British cello repertoire and has recorded the Double Concerto by Percy Sherwood for the EM Records label. Follow Joseph via: @cellospooner

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