Alban's Blog

Bach Suites

Today I finally started to learn the C Major Bach Suite. Oh my god, I know it so well by just listening to it numerous times, but how hard is it musically.

I have this new edition in which all the sources are combined – for a very low price they even added every single manuscript, which is very interesting while highly confusing. No slurs, and if you check carefully all the manuscripts, everybody says something else. What to do? I think the optimum would be to freely improvise ones bowings and slurs, knowing the various “rules”. It is highly dangerous to fall into stereotypes and repeat the same bowing over and over – it just becomes boring, as beautiful as the music might be.

And then we have the problem with authenticity. How much vibrato? Vibrato at all? Yes, there should be vibrato, but in a very different way to our vibrato of today. Much smaller, much less often, just as the human voice tends to “swing” naturally” without forcing it. Easier said than done, I must admit…

And then the sound – not really the “Russian Iron” (that means to kind of stay in the string without any articulation), but not the anaemic music making of some others. I listened once to Aner Bylsma, and he goes deep into the string, really loved his sound production and his musical ideas. We have to somehow go in and out of the string, if you know what I mean, and this is sooo frustratingly hard, because there is so much room for error and sidenoises.

Have to do all the Bachsuites next year, and I have to start now, because (I guess not only) for me this is the biggest challenge of all!


  • Tim Spahr

    Considering the sheer quantity of repertoire you’ve covered, it’s surprising to me that you’ve not previously had the occasion to play the Third Suite. Is that because you’ve focused so heavily on the concerto and sonata repertoire (including some interesting, rarely performed works, it seems) that you have not had many occasions to perform portions of the Bach Suites? Or is it that up to this point you’ve always felt a bit daunted by the musical challenges you wrote about? (I know I’ve felt that way!) Or is it that in the past Bach hasn’t spoken to you as readily as Romantic or more contemporary music does?

    Also, for what occasion are you learning all the Suites? For a concert series or to make CDs or DVDs? (Do you ever plan to release any DVDs, by the way?)

  • Tim Spahr

    Oh! Please disregard part of my question, as I now see you’re performing all the Suites in August.

  • Alban

    Dear Tim,

    actually, my friend Bob Park, former principal cellist of the US Army Band just sent me an e-mail asking, how I could have become a cellist without having played or learned the Bach C Major – well, for the longest time I focused on the 6th Suite, because I wanted to prove that it can sound good also on a four-string instrument. Yes, I play mainly concertos and recitals with piano, not so many solorecitals. And yes, Bach has spoken to me :), but I have the greatest respect especially for the technical “easier” suites, which I find musically even more challenging (especially G and C Major) – I always liked the Bach pieces in minor keys much better (already when I played the “Italian Concerto” on the piano when I was 14 – didn’t like much the outer movements, but absolutely adored the slow middle movement. I always like to say something in my own way with the music I play, and with Bach this is more difficult than with most other composers, if you know what I mean…
    DVD’s? Nothing planned yet, but not a bad idea…

  • Bob

    I understand why Alban would avoid the third suite, I was just surprised that he could. One of my teachers refused to teach the first three Bach Suites to his students. If they persisted, he would say “why do you want to play those, they are so boring!” I studied the last 3 Suites with him, and can tell you he knew them intimately. He loved the first three equally but he never taught or performed them because they carry too much baggage. Everyone knows them and has a closed mind about them. Only a virtuoso can play the sixth suite succesfully. Only a great musician can give a truly authentic performance ot the third. Rostropovich himself never recorded Bach until the end of his career. I once heard him give a magnificent live performance of the C minor, and by comparison his recording sounds scholarly. So I look forward to hearing Alban’s fresh and original Bach. I hope and trust that he won’t get too caught up in speculations about authenticity and allows his own persona to come through.


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