For generations, the transcendent unaccompanied Bach works for cello and for violin have inspired and intimidated our most accomplished performers. Isaac Stern told me some years ago that one goal of his sabbatical at age 60 was to work on the six violin sonatas and partitas. To my knowledge, nothing has yet to come of it. Likewise, Mstislav Rostropovich has said immersion in the six cello suites was one of the purposes of his recent year off. And, though that wasn't so long ago, one has yet to hear a result.
This is not to say that either Stern or Rostropovich is not going to take off soon and leap into interpretive and executional brilliance at these mighty challenges. But their delays indicate how these works give even the mightiest pause. Better, the idea is, not to do it at all than to do it inadequately.
One is made especially aware of this in a new recording of the cello suites by a man who has in some measure formed his career around them -- that Spartan, intensely committed and buoyant cellist Ja'nos Starker (Sefel SEFD-300, and SECD 300 A and B). His old recordings of them were vintage, as they say, but these new ones are very special. Starker has been really having his say about these pieces lately (doing them all at two concerts at the Metropolitan Museum recently), and there is a valedictory air about these performances, as if to suggest that this is his last word. (Starker, who is 61 and at the peak of his powers, is one of those prickly men who keep saying they will quit at 65, with the stoic implication that to perform at less than their best would be a humiliation.)
If this is the last word, it represents an exciting response to a sort of Olympian challenge -- to works that are on the whole austere and that lack the usual crowd-pleasing elements. But if the works are austere, in these performances they are certainly of enormous vitality, not the dry exercises that they were taken to be before Pablo Casals rescued them from obscurity around the turn of the century.
In his splendid book "Casals and the Art of Interpretation," David Blum describes what the previous attitude was:
"Many years ago, when I was attending the Juilliard School of Music, a lecturer -- a well-known American composer -- informed his students that 'the music of Bach is not beautiful; its interest resides exclusively in its structural complexity.' While few of us would share so extreme a view, it is not uncommon for musicians to stand away from the music of Bach, shy of too close a personal participation. With Beethoven and Brahms one can 'let oneself go,' but Bach is accorded such profound respect that our feelings tend to be left by the wayside. The result is an emotional paralysis which denies to Bach's music a sense of vital recreation at the moment of interpretation.
"We would never dream of treating Beethoven in such a manner -- nor Shakespeare. Imagine a performance of the 'Eroica' divested of impassioned involvement, or of 'Hamlet' in which the actors confined their expression to what they considered the stylistic decorum appropriate to the Danish court! When we were pleased enough to perform Bach with an 'objectivity' of mind removed from the heart, let us not believe that we are carrying out the intention of the Cantor of St. Thomas -- a man who would write 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' and yet, when enraged, did not hesitate to draw his sword in the street."
Starker's performances of these suites are at their most eloquent in the way they fly in the face of the notion that "Bach is not beautiful."
He does not luxuriate in the works; that would work no better than expressing the drama of the "St. Matthew Passion" like the drama of Verdi.
Starker finds intensity in different ways. The performances are deeply considered, but they are not excessively sober. Remember that, on the whole, these are dance suites. The sequence is the same in each -- Praeludium, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavottes, Boure'es or Minuets, and Gigues. And, much of the time, he plays them as dance suites.
One of the keys to Starker's approach is the pure and simple incisiveness of it. He has a marvelous command of the rhythms, never lagging. And he has an unsurpassed capacity for playing on pitch, regardless of contrapuntal rigors. His dynamics are pretty glorious, especially in those spots where he chooses to lighten the sound, without its sounding in any way frayed -- not easy on the cello, which is one of the most magnificent of instruments but not one of the most flexible.
One almost trembles to say it, but in terms of agility in the dance movements, Starker sometimes outpaces the Casals recordings -- which are probably the master's greatest achievements on record.
To be sure, without Casals neither Starker nor anybody else might might be playing these works today; there is the breathtaking eloquence of Casals' rhetoric, especially in the gravest moments, normally in the Praeludiums, where Bach is at his most spiritual. The sound of Casals' cello in those passages is like no other cello sound I have ever heard. There is a range of color, a resonance, that defies explanation. Casals played the cello the way his contemporary Rachmaninoff played the piano, and no one has come along to replace either of them. It is our blessing that each is well represented on recordings.
My experience is that no other recording of the suites quite approaches that of Starker or Casals. There is a persuasive recent recording by Yo Yo Ma (CBS 3M-37867) but it just doesn't grab you the way Starker's and Casals' do.
So who has the last word, or note?
Starker has some wise thoughts on the subject:
"Decades ago I said that any attempt to classify a performance of this music as a truly Bach presentation would be futile and baseless. This holds true today and forever, notwithstanding all the research data and the pretensions they spawned. So the issue becomes which elements in the music will one focus on: purity, simplicity, and balance must be maintained, technical proficiency must be pursued, but then beauty of sound must be given more significance. A lovely string instrument should sing as much as possible.
"In cases like the E-flat Suite the lack of natural overtones must be helped by the more extensive use of harmonics to beautify the sound. Within the boundaries of discipline, movements should dance and meditate with freedom, but not anarchy. They should meditate with thoughts of the present and a recollection of the past. They should dance with grace and wistful reveries of bygone eras. The use of repeats are determined by balance and content, not blind observances.
"The search goes on, and except for a man's limited time and capacity, one hopes it never ends. Bach's creations will remain as long as human aspirations center on art and music, and so will the changes continue."
Starker is right. There is no such thing as a definitive set of Bach suites. And it would be folly to recommend his decisively over Casals', or vice versa. They are distinctly different experiences. Each is a revelation.