by Daniel Hathaway
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his six solo cello suites between 1717 and 1723, when he was employed as Kapellmeister by the Duke of Anhalt-Köthen, but it was only much later that these works became widely known and hailed for their profundity.
Credit Pablo Casals, who bought a second-hand score of the pieces in Barcelona in 1890 at the age of 13, and worked on them for a dozen years before daring to play them in public. He preserved his performances between 1936 and 1939 in a recording that the Library of Congress chose earlier this year for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
Performances of the six suites have become something of an Everest for cellists. The Cleveland Orchestra’s Dane Johansen hiked the 600-mile Camino de Santiago in 2014, recording the suites in 36 churches along the pilgrimage route. More conventionally but no less impressively, Yo-Yo Ma played all six in one evening at Blossom in August of 2018.
Now, Apollo’s Fire principal cello René Schiffer has decided to take the suites on, but in a different format and from a special point of view. He’ll perform and record them two at a time beginning this weekend. His concerts on Saturday, November 2 at 4:00 pm in Akron’s First Methodist Church and on Sunday, November 3 at 4:00 pm in Tucker Hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights will include Suites No. 2 in d and No. 3 in C. Tickets are available online.
Schiffer said in a recent telephone conversation that he took on the project with some reluctance. “Everybody records these suites — why should I join the fray? I always thought that if I were going to make a CD, it would be of my own pieces.”
He gave in after the strong exhortations of friends and the promise of funding. “People have told me that it’s worth putting myself out there because I have my own unique rendering of the pieces. I decided, why not!”
Schiffer said that the special point of view he brings to the project is that of a composer as well as a performer. “In Bach’s time, a cellist would also have been a composer. I’ve been writing music in the Baroque style my whole life, so composing has become second nature for me. The living contact and rapport that I have with the music is similar to that of a jazz player.
“For classical musicians, the written score is the number one thing, but that’s not for me anymore. I’m going into this not with the mindset of being authentic — I can’t tell you what Bach would have wanted, because I can’t get into his brain — but from the perspective of what a cellist of the time might have done with the music.”
Schiffer’s re-ordering of the suites in his three sets of concerts reflects that they were written as pedagogical pieces in order of difficulty. His January performances will include the fifth and sixth suites, for which he’ll use a special five-string violoncello piccolo, then the final set in March will visit the first and fourth suites.
“I have a really wonderful violoncello piccolo,” he said. “I’ll use an alternate tuning that allows you to make wonderful new chords that you can’t play on a normally-tuned cello. And calling on my gamba training, I’ll bow underhand, which makes my instruments sound better.”
Audiences will also be treated to music by Schiffer himself. “I wrote my own Bach Suite in the ‘90s — Suite No. 7. It carries the catalogue number BMW 1013 TD, which either stands for ‘turbo diesel’ or ‘touchdown.’ It also shows how you can make a Bach gigue out of a fiddler’s jig. That should be interesting, and a little bit entertaining, I hope.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 29, 2019.
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