Showing posts with label Pablo Casals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pablo Casals. Show all posts

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book review--Cello Chronicles

The Cello Suites
J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals And The Search For A Baroque Masterpiece
By Eric Siblin
Atlantic Monthly Press

Possibly a literary equivalent of Francois Girard’s film, The Red Violin, Canadian journalist/writer Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites blends mystery, with biographies that read as multiple narratives. Certainly this page turner transforms the stuff shirt-stiff wig image of J.S. Bach into a man of intrigue and the cello from a melancholic to a magical instrument. Siblin’s journey into the Bach realm began when his career as a pop music journalist was on the wane and he stepped into a concert hall where the mysterious Cello Suites were performed, all 6 of them. This journey led the author to Belgium, France, Spain, and even to discoveries in his hometown, Montreal. He learns cello, joins a Bach chorale camp, and explores the Cello Suites in depth—experiential journalism.

While the readers are left hanging in regard to the suite’s origins, Siblin draws his own conclusions about each of the suites. “The second suite will forever remain for me a suite of tragedy, the third, love; the fourth, struggle; and the fifth mystery…The sixth suite is one of transcendence.” Well, with those descriptions, I played Pablo Casals’ recording of the first three suites (the library doesn’t have volume 2 with suites 4, 5, and 6). And just like watching The Red Violin (several times), drew me back to listening to and exploring classical music, Siblin’s book has transformed my views of J.S. Bach. However, my favorite sections of the book contain biographical information about Casals, his plight and the author’s discoveries also proved intriguing.

I’m amazed at the in depth information that Siblin weaves into a mere 270 pages. Obviously this author conducted thorough research, not just of the baroque era, or the Victorian era in which Casals began his long career, but also the modern era and its interpretations of Bach’s repertoire. Readers are immersed in multiple points of view from staunch Bach society types to pop stars flirting with Bach’s most famous works. And we are left with enough material here to form discussion groups to delve into the history of music, contemporary uses, and source purity. In the end, the mystery of Bach’s Cello Suites might never be solved and musicians will still take liberties in interpretations (think Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations) or a guitarist tackling the Cello Suites.

I’ve covered enough early music to come across debates about purity of sources, composers’ original intentions. New scores, manuscripts and letters surface about early music works that alter opinions and the facts. J.S. Bach composed and performed music in the 17th and 18th century. Music, instruments, and technology has transformed drastically since the baroque era. And it’s as Siblin and other early music aficionados have brought up, that we can’t possibly hear baroque music in the same way as our baroque era equivelents. We are inundated with music from around the world, immersed in commercial jingles, pop songs, and we listen to music differently through 2oth and 21st century technology.

The Cello Suites offers a fantastic read full of intrigue, history, and music. Narratives weave into each other seamlessly and beautifully. Facts flirt with literary moments, history bends with contemporary times. And no one has created such an enticing image of J.S. Bach since Glenn Gould dusted off Bach’s piano work and introduced it to the world’s concert halls in the 1950s. Bach's Cello Suites might just be the next Goldberg Variations, if it isn't already. And for those readers who relegated Bach to the boring confines of the Lutheran Church or the cello to the closet, might find themselves rethinking their views. Cellos might just be as adventurous as electric guitars.

Friday, June 25, 2010

In review--Casals' Cello

Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
J.S. Bach Suites for Cello Volume 1
Great Recordings of the Century

I first heard about the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals in the Canadian film, 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. The Glenn Gould character produced a radio documentary where he interviewed the great cellist. Glenn Gould did for J. S. Bach’s keyboard pieces what Pablo Casals had done for Bach’s Cello Suites and that was to remove the stigma of overly academic from Bach’s masterpieces. And in the hands of virtuoso interpreters such as Gould and Casals, the piano sonatas, and Cello Suites took on a new vivacious life. Bach’s music had been reconsidered and accepted by a broader public.

Pablo Casals was born in the Catalan region of Spain (also home of the early music interpreter/performer Jordi Savall and his family), in 1876 and by the age of 5, he showed an aptitude for music. His musical training began with keyboards, but he would later fall in love with the cello. He was performing professionally by the age of 12 when he came across the manuscript of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. In the liner notes Casals is quoted, “For twelve years I studied and worked at them every day and I was nearly 25 before I had the courage to play one of them in public. Before I did, no violinist or cellist had ever played the Suite in its entirety.” Another 35 years passed before Casals recorded the Cello Suites (1936).

The digital re-master of Casal’s recording sounds remarkable, given all the years that passed since the studio recording. Casal plays each suite with a different palette of emotions. The combination of Bach’s and Casal’s genius as composer and performer lend itself to a powerful musical experience. I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello Suites recording too, beautiful in its own right, but feels like a mere shadow in comparison to Casal’s vintage recording. And I’m sure that Yo-Yo Ma would agree, not that he’s not a virtuoso in his own right, but that one must bow to the master. Casal pioneered this work, brought it back into the public’s eye and thought of the manuscript as so precious that it took him 12 years of getting it right before he launched its haunting beauty on the public.

I could sit here and string adjectives together to describe the experience of listening to Casal’s Cello Suites. But I would rather you listen to this recording on your own. This barebones session features a man bonding with his cello and with the baroque composer Bach. The performance transcends its early 20th century studio limitations. Perhaps that is why this recording is thought of as a treasure by musicians and Bach aficionados. You can literally hear the years of sweat and toil that went into mastering these suites. Casal plays with bold confidence and he also allows the music to play itself. Listening to this recording feels deeply spiritual and even meditating for hours couldn’t take me to the peaceful place this recording takes me.

In fact, if I could own only one Bach recording, this would be the one for me. One moment it relaxes me, the next it inspires and energizes me, especially the last suite #3 (there are 6 cello suites total), which ends the recording. And I would predict that anyone listening to this recording who wasn’t previously a fan of the cello, will suddenly love the instrument with its lonely cries, breaths, and wistfulness. This is easily one of the best recordings of recording history. And a must-have CD in every collection.