Coping with crisis Bach cataloger Wolfgang Schmieder (whose last name gave rise to the S. numbers many writers now use when citing the master’s works instead of the more traditional BWV – Bach Werke Verzeichnis prefix) was uncharacteristically circumspect when he got around to the Cello Suites, writing, simply,

Besetzung. Violoncello (Viola pomposa für die 6. Suite) allein. BGA XXVII(1), 59. – EZ Köthen etwa 1720. Bach soll diese Suiten für Ferdinand Christian Abel komponiert haben, der als Gambist und Cellist bis 1727 der Kapelle des Fürsten Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen angehörte. Die 5. Suite (Nr. 1011) bearbeitete Bach später für Laute. (Vgl. Nr. 995.)

(Instrumentation. Violoncello (viola pomposa for the 6th suite) alone. BGA XXVII.1, 59. – EZ Köthen around 1720. Bach is said to have composed these suites for Ferdinand Christian Abel, who was a gambist and cellist in the chapel of Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen until 1727. Bach later arranged the 5th suite [No. 1011] for lute. [See No. 995.]*) (The three Bach gamba sonatas with keyboard were also written for Abel.)

Bach’s cello suites are among his most sublime creations – that’s a fact that only violinists, keyboard players, organists, and singers might dispute. They’re certainly the basis, the veritable foundation, of the musical lives of cellists, more than a few of whom, from Pablo Casals** (who brought them out of the studio and onto the world’s platforms as concert works) to the present, have started every day with these scores, which serve them more or less as morning prayers. (An example of this involving Borromeo Quartet cellist Yeesun Kim is here.) Most of the important cellists of our era have played them, many in public; more than a few have recorded them as well.

All that said, hearing (and seeing) an artist perform these works is always engrossing, enriching, informative, rewarding, moving….. And hearing an artist such as Emanuel Gruber play them – well, that’s an opportunity not to be missed. His bio is here; as you can see, he’s played all over, in all kinds of musical environments, and he’s also spent a considerable amount of time teaching. All that experience is demonstrated in so many ways in his approach to these pieces and was shown from start to finish in the three suites he played in the latest virtual concert from ECU, initially aired on April 12 but available online indefinitely.

The suites consist of preludes and dance movements. Nos. 1 and 2 include six dances (the two menuets being played consecutively). No. 4 follows the same arrangement with two bourrées substituted for the menuets. The keys of these works are, respectively, G, D minor, and E-flat, so even the grouping had artistic merit.

From the first notes one was aware of the player’s profound commitment to the scores as he brought them to life. These were modern instrument renditions, rich in tone and color but always insightful. The camera work was sufficiently varied to sustain viewer interest, the sound was fine although even closer microphone placement might have enhanced the aural impact. Overall this was some of the most impressive playing yet heard from an artist with whom some of us have more or less grown up – playing in which he demonstrated once again the power of Bach and these scores in particular, music that harpsichordist Wanda Landowska called (in a somewhat different context) “spiritual food” for our souls. The second suite seemed more dramatic than usual – it is perhaps the most “theatrical” of the works, although it was certainly never intended for any stage other than the player’s imaginary one. The fourth is perhaps the most demanding one, technically, due to the difficult key, but Gruber made it seem easy – ah! how deceptive it was, and how consistently rewarding. Overall, this was an evening of deep reflection and elegance, richly rewarding throughout. We can hope Gruber will give us the other three suites in online incarnations before too much longer. The set will without question be a keeper!

The recital is available here:

*The scores may be found here.

**Casals made the very first recordings of these suites, recordings that stand today alongside much more recent versions.