The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin


This is the first book written by this Canadian journalist and film-maker.  I'm not sure how a journalist who was the pop music critic for a time for the Montreal Gazette came to fall so completely in love with Bach's cello suites, but I am very happy it happened.  

The subtitle is J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece; the author savors the music in many ways.  He writes about Bach and his interesting family, he tells the amazing story of Pablo Casals, he describes the performance of the suites by various cellists, he describes the music itself beautifully and he tells about attending a weekend "camp" for amateur Bach performers.

Siblin writes about the stuffiness of classical music concerts where applauding between movements is not to be done:

Until half a century or so ago crowds applauded after every movement.  And why shouldn't the audience be able to unleash its bravos or reward a smoking instrumental solo in real time?  In Bach's day there was no such hushed reverence.

It was amazing to learn that Bach was eclipsed in his century by his sons, and that the Bach revival began in 1829 with a performance of St. Matthew Passion organized by Felix Mendelssohn.  And then too we learn that the cello suites were not played until Pablo Casals found an edition of them in a dusty music shop in 1890. 

Siblin writes about the variety of interpretations by modern cellists. 

Comparing recordings of the Suite No. 3 prelude recently, I found the sound of Steven Isserlis super-smooth; Anner Bylsma, dry and eccentric; Pierre Fournier, elegantly relaxed, Pieter Wispelwey, gorgeously magical; Mischa Maisky, grandiose, Matt Haimovita, lyrical and playful…Everyone will have their preferences (Isserlis won the taste test for me that day), but never do I want to hit the Stop button once any of these excellent cellists is bowing Bach.

He describes meeting by chance an elderly man living in his neighborhood in Montreal.  It turns out that Walter Joachim was a cellist who had actually heard Casals play the suites in Berlin.  He escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Shanghai where he became the first cellist in the symphony the day after he arrived there.  He came to Canada in 1952 and performed and taught there for the remainder of his career.

I could go on and on quoting from this exciting and beautiful book, but I will stop with the note about the famous 1961 White House concert and Casals' private talk with President Kennedy.

They discussed a wide range of topics, including Casals' previous White House performance, fifty-seven years earlier before Theodore Roosevelt.

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