BACH The Cello Suites Jian Wang



6 Suiten für Violoncello solo
6 Suites for Solo Violoncello
BWV 1007-1012
Jian Wang
Int. Release 01 Feb. 2005
2 CDs
CD DDD 0289 477 5228 8 GH 2
A calling-card recording of exceptional quality, presenting the timeless modernism of Bach's music in a highly personal interpretation


CD 1: Bach, J.S.: Cello Suites

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Suite for Cello Solo No.1 in G, BWV 1007

Suite for Cello Solo No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008


Suite for Cello Solo No.6 in D, BWV 1012


Jian Wang

Gesamtspielzeit: 1:13:13

CD 2: Bach, J.S.: Cello Suites

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Suite for Cello Solo No.3 in C, BWV 1009

Suite for Cello Solo No.4 in E flat, BWV 1010


Suite for Cello Solo No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011


Jian Wang

Gesamtspielzeit: 1:16:26

. . . symbolic and full of energy . . .

Wang is assuredly a great cellist. In a world increasingly full of great recordings of them, these by the young cellist instantly take an important place.

[Wang's] eloquent playing, which has much of the flexibility and grace of the legendary Casals in this repertory, draws the listener deep into the music. Wang exudes emotion in his interpretations without cheapening one phrase or stifling the flow of Bach's far-reaching melodic lines.

Wang's new CD is quite beautiful . . . Throughout he manages to draw out a soulful depth that makes these works very much his own.

Wang's bow control projects lyrical melody above restrained harmony and repeats, rather than sounding literal, become developed expansions of the first playing of each half-dance . . . this is wonderfully imaginative playing, with fine recording picking up a resonant bloom without obscuring detail -- a "must" for any collection.

That deep-seated, big-picture view of Bach and where his music fits into our inner lives is what Wang brings to the table and it is what he expresses so ably through his artistry.

With 60 recordings of these suites already available, to make a mark among such a host requires at the very least superlative technique, a deep understanding of French courtly dance and a musical personality modest enough to reflect and complement, rather than impose on, Bach's intentions. Jian Wang plays outmoded Allemandes fairly freely, though he holds the notoriously slow final one on a firm rein. Faster dances are superbly metrical but never inflexible as he bends rhythms around the underlying
pulse. They are full of character, too -- the third Allemande strutting proudly; the first Minuet with elegantly lifted steps; the final Gigue . . . with never a hint of hesitation at the fistfuls of multiple stops. Wang's bow control projects lyrical melody above restrained harmony and repeats, rather than sounding literal, become developed expansions of the first playing of each half-dance. The six Preludes, each strikingly different, are full of contrasting character. . . this is wonderful imaginative playing, with fine recording picking up a resonant bloom without obscuring details -- a "must" for any collection.

The deep-seated, big-picture view of Bach and where his music fits into our inner lives is what Wang brings to the table and it is what he expresses so ably through his artistry.

Here we have nothing but tenderness, both in the silky caresses of his playing and in the conception . . . This is not a definitive reading, though for its exquisite musicianship a compelling one nevertheless.

. . . great melding of dance-like, up-tempo period readings, and more Romantic or subjective interpretations.

C'est une version inspirée du romantisme comme du baroque, yin et yang si l'on peut dire, qu'interprète Jian Wang, avec une liberté d'agogique qui paraît parfois incroyablement romantique, et, en même temps, des phrases très découpées et des articulations variées : c'est du très beau violoncelle, à la sonorité riche, pure et équilibrée. . .

Uno de los grandes logros de Wang es esa constante serenidad que emana de su instrumento, sin que la austeridad sea un sinónimo de aridez o severidad. Su Bach, sencillamente, es tan libre como el pensamiento que deja volar mientras lo toca.

Wang toca las obras con lo que parece una extraordinaria serenidad de espíritu.
Jian Wang in Conversation with Ken Smith

KS: What did Bach's suites mean to you growing up as a cellist?

JW: My dad was a cellist and played mostly classical music, but I don't think I responded to Bach very much in the beginning. For me it was nice, but too complicated, without as many melodies as some other cello music. I started performing Bach in public when I was 9 or 10 - not entire suites, but two or three movements at a time. After my appearance in the movie From Mao to Mozart I was the showcase kid, wheeled out to play three or four times a week. I remember during one performance I was playing Bach for a bunch of Dutch musicians and had a memory slip. I started crying on stage, and maybe 30 of them rushed up and hugged me and gave me kisses, which just made me feel even more embarrassed. (When Chinese people are upset or distressed you leave them alone; you pretend you don't notice their embarrassment.) One of these guys said to me - it was translated later - "This is the hardest thing to memorize. Don't be ashamed. You made beautiful music." And as I performed them more, I started playing them better and better. They became a refuge for my soul. I know it sounds pretty heavy, but this is the music I play for myself. After I play a lot of concertos, when I'm tired of practising, when I am tired of music, I play Bach for myself. Then everything is cleansed and my sensitivity comes back.

KS: How has your approach to Bach's music deepened over the years?

JW: In the beginning I tried to play the suites like songs, to make them pretty. But by my mid-20s, they became about more than just being beautiful - also about what we hope to be in this world but can't. At least for me, it was a view into another spiritual world. After that, I started liking the way I played them better, and then I noticed that other people did too. Of course, I get blown away by big things like Mahler symphonies, but music didn't start that way. Music started from the heart, as something we play for ourselves. It's like life, growing from a single cell.

KS: You were born in China, but you live in the West. Where do you place yourself as an artist between those two worlds?

JW: I don't know how anyone else feels about me, but I think of myself as being kind of in the middle. I left China when I was 16, so half my life has been spent in the West. And those first years outside, between 16 and 20 I'd say, were my most formative as a mature artist. In my ideas and outlook I would say I'm very much Americanized. But part of me is still very much Chinese.

KS: What does that Chinese part mean to you?

JW: Besides playing the cello, one of the biggest things I did growing up was to read huge numbers of books in Chinese, sometimes in bed under the covers with a flashlight. I wouldn't call myself a scholar, but I have a deeper than average grasp of Chinese history and culture. Music, however, is a language, with its own style and mannerisms. A great writer can write a great book in any language provided he's proficient in that language, but the message will always be about human nature. But I can't say that being Chinese makes me a different artist, because I believe music too is all about human nature.

KS: Still, you bring a much different culture to bear on this music. Bach is not terribly Chinese, so how does your own background manifest itself in his music?

JW: Bach's music has a lot of qualities that appeal to the Chinese philosophy of life: To be humble, to wish but not desire, to love but not own. This is all in Chinese philosophy, and because I grew up with those values, these things are dear to me. When I listen to Bach's music, it confirms all of that. I have no idea how a German feels, but I can tell you Bach's music totally struck a chord in me and I can understand what he's trying to say in my way. I'm not nervous for not being German, or not sharing Bach's religious beliefs. I feel very confident because his music touches me so deeply.

KS: How long did it take to reach this level of connection?

JW: I would say one of the triggers was the movie Tous les matins du monde. The scene that touched me greatly was when Saint Colombe sits down and begins playing, thinking about his wife who had just died. The simplicity of the music, the organic feeling of it, brought tears to my eyes. From then on, I listened to a lot of Baroque music. I find it very much like Chinese poetry. You know, some concertos are like novels, with fascinating, fantastic stories. You get an entirely different feeling when you read a 20-character poem in Chinese. In those four lines, with five characters per line, you have a mini-universe, so dense and yet so simple. It makes you feel that the world is much more logical.

KS: You live in the West but perform frequently in China. How does that background weigh on you in terms of your art and your audience?

JW: I feel very lucky that I'm able to play my music and share what I think is very precious with other people. If you look at the generation before me, who lost everything during the Cultural Revolution: we had great artists, I can tell you, but they had no possibilities of doing what I do. More recently I remember a Chinese review that said, "We have seen Chinese performers beside some of the greatest names from the West and we can safely say that some of our own are great as well." The Chinese people have been aware of this music for a long time. They've always liked and appreciated it, but they've always thought of it as someone else's. It wasn't their music to criticize, or to make their own. I think this is what I can contribute. If enough people hear my playing and say, "He looks like us", I can bring down that wall.


Bach's Cello Suites

At the end of the 17th century, as German cities and courts were finally beginning to recover economically from the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), they were swept by a vogue for French aristocratic culture. Recognizing Louis XIV's tremendous power and prestige, the German nobility utilized their newfound wealth in an attempt to reflect the Sun King's luminous glory, cultivating the elegant deportment, dress and spectacle they had witnessed on their grand tours to Versailles. Middle-class German citizens, too, affected a courtly manner in order to raise themselves above what many perceived to be an indigenous cultural backwardness. Hundreds of French collections of literature and poetry were translated into German or newly created by inspired German authors - not to mention self-help books on morality, dance, letter writing and all manner of other topics - and sold to a growing body of eager customers. Leipzig's most famous philosopher and social critic of the period, Christian Thomasius told a group of students at the local university in 1687 that their German ancestors would not even recognize them for their “French clothes, French food, French household items, the French language, French manners, French sins and even French diseases."

It is thus not surprising that the music of the French court enjoyed tremendous popularity during these years. German court musicians were sent regularly to Paris to study with Jean-Baptiste Lully in order to familiarize themselves with the latest Gallic styles. Since the French absolutely dominated the realm of dancing, German musicians returned with suitcases full of the most current specimens, most especially ouvertures - sets of binary, or two-part, Lullian dances for orchestra, all in the same key - and suites - smaller-scale, domesticated versions of these dances for solo keyboard or lute.

Writers of the period loved to highlight the variety inherent in these genres by citing the purported international origins of the most common dance types - the allemande was thought to be distinctly German, the courante either French or Italian, the sarabande was said to have come from Spain and to have been danced with castanets, the gigue (jig) from England, the bourrée from the Auvergne, the gavotte from the region around Gap in the French Alps, and the menuet (minuet) from the French province of Poitou. But, whatever their true origin may have been, the enormous appeal of these dances ultimately lay in the fact that all of them came to Germany by way of the French court.

It was in this cultural environment that Johann Sebastian Bach received his earliest musical training. As a student in Lüneburg between 1700 and 1702 the young Sebastian came into regular contact with the French manner of performance through visits to a nearby court. There he is said to have “acquired a thorough grounding in the French taste, which at that time in those regions was something quite new." Over the course of his life, Bach wrote dozens of suites, including three famous collections for keyboard: the English Suites, the French Suites and the Partitas (Clavier-Übung, Part 1). Perhaps his most celebrated suites, however, are those for solo violin (Sei Solo à Violino senza Basso accompagnato) and those for solo cello (6 Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso), which are heard on the present recording.

The Cello Suites remain among the most mysterious works in Bach's entire oeuvre, not least because the autograph manuscript is missing. Without a source in the composer's own hand it is impossible to say with certainty when these works were composed. The surviving manuscript closest to Bach was prepared in the late 1720s by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. As the Cello Suites are often transmitted together with the solo violin works, however, it seems plausible that they were largely composed at around the same time: in or before 1720.

Other than those by Bach, no suites for solo cello are known to have been written by any composer of the 17th or 18th centuries - perhaps because, as Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), Bach's erstwhile competitor for the post at St. Thomas once observed, the cello was considered to be a particularly “difficult and troublesome instrument." Were Bach's suites perhaps inspired by the unusual skills of one of his cellist colleagues in Weimar or Cöthen? Given the current state of documentary evidence it is impossible to say with any authority.

Bach turned to composing cello suites at least partly in order to challenge himself. The reduction of a Lullian orchestral ouverture is relatively straightforward when one is writing for a chordal instrument capable of polyphony, such as the keyboard or lute. In order to create such music for a single-line instrument such as a solo cello or violin, however, Bach needed to develop a new type of melody that implied its own harmonic support. This tremendous achievement was described by his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in 1802 as follows:

How far Bach's meditation and penetration in the treatment of melody and harmony was carried... appears furthermore from his attempt to contrive a single melody in such a manner that no second singable part could be set against it. At that time it was an established rule that every union of parts must make a whole and exhaust all the notes necessary to the most complete expression of the contents, so that no deficiency should anywhere be sensible by which another part might be rendered possible... He not only fully satisfied this rule in settings for two, three, and four parts, but attempted also to extend it to a single part. To this attempt we are indebted for the six solos for the violin and six others for the violoncello, which are without any accompaniment and which absolutely admit of no second singable part set to them. By particular turns in the melody, he has so combined in a single part all the notes required to make the modulation complete that a second part is neither necessary nor possible.
Bach must also have hoped to challenge his students with these works. Suites were a regular part of 18th-century pedagogy, as his pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger observed 27 years after Bach's death:

The large number of Partitas and Suites which we have from our ancestors, and which are nothing other than collections of dances, prove that these were at that time the main object of study for young musicians, as much for those who dedicated themselves to composition, as for those who dedicated themselves simply to performance.

Studying dances was a highly efficient means of gaining an appreciation for rhythmic subtleties - the graceful flow of an allemande, the complicated hemiola patterns of the courante and the stately gait of the sarabande - that would serve a musician well when playing or composing works in other genres. The violin and cello works were also clearly designed to challenge players from a technical standpoint. It is certainly no accident that the Cello Suites become more difficult to play as one progresses through the collection. Bach expected those who approached his music to work hard, and he regularly offered them rewarding challenges rather than indulgences. Relying on information provided to him by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J. N. Forkel observed in his biography:

For many years, the violin solos were universally considered by the greatest performers on the violin as the best means to make an ambitious student a perfect master of his instrument. The solo suites for the violoncello are, in this respect, of equal value.

One of the hallmarks of J. S. Bach's style is his ability to elicit great variety within a single collection. Each of the Cello Suites has its unique character. The Prelude of the FIRST SUITE, in G major, sets a warm and welcoming tone, embracing the style of the C major prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The SECOND SUITE, in D minor, cultivates a more brooding and introspective atmosphere. The improvisatory Prelude bears some resemblance to the French unmeasured preludes of the late 17th-century. The THIRD SUITE, in C major, is the most tightly integrated in the set: the descending scale at the beginning of Prelude (marked “presto" in one 18th-century manuscript) is referenced at the opening of both the Allemande and Courante, and the chords at the end of the Prelude return to begin the Sarabande. Bach's FOURTH SUITE for solo cello returns to the arpeggiated patterns of the First, symbolically beginning the work again at the halfway point. Here he cultivates a more strained tone, built into the work physically through inherently awkward stretches in the key of E flat major. More than once the progression of arpeggios in the Prelude is brought to a halt by fast, improvisatory gestures that seem to rail against the fate of the tonality. The FIFTH SUITE, in C minor, is the most “French" of the six: its Prelude is modeled on the opening movement of a French ouverture; the Allemande adopts the characteristic dotted rhythms of the French court; the Courante is the only work of its kind in the whole collection, written in 3/2 with the strong hemiola patterns found in dance music of the period; and the Gigue is pervaded by the unyielding dactylic rhythm found in many French suites. The SIXTH SUITE, in D major, has the widest range by far. It was conceived for a cello with five strings, although today virtuoso cellists such as Jian Wang perform it on a standard, four-string cello. From the playfully aggressive bariolage effect of its Prelude and Courante, through the more thoughtful tone of its Allemande (marked “Molto Adagio" in late 18th-century manuscripts) and Sarabande, the pastoral tone of its second Gavotte and the hunting-horn references in its final Gigue, the noble Sixth Suite represents the crowning glory of Bach's achievement in this unprecedented genre.

Andrew Talle