Day 17: Suite No. 3 in C major, Bourrées I & II

Children playing Suzuki cello. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

The C major Bourrées may be the most famous Bach cello movement. Or maybe it’s a tie with the G major Prelude. In any case, they’re the first Bach cello movements I ever played–only I played them on the violin, age 7. I was a violinist before I was a cellist (this is quite common among professional cellists, but it never seems to happen the other way around. Funny, that) and I encountered the Bourrées in an arrangement for violin and piano in G major in Suzuki Book 2. Or maybe it was Book 3, I can’t remember. So they’ve been with me for a long, long time now.

And I’ve had to do a lot of de-Suzuki-izing. I should reiterate that I’m a tremendous fan of the Suzuki method and trained as a Suzuki teacher myself some years ago (although I don’t advertise myself as one). The principal problem I have with Suzuki is the repertoire books, which are often compiled from awful, old-fashioned editions that do sacrilegious things like put piano accompaniments with solo Bach movements. It took a lot to try and debrief my brain so it wouldn’t automatically hear this nineteenth-century fabrication in my mind’s ear.

When you can approach the Bourrées on their own terms, their charm just increases. I see them as a sort of “rounding-up” of the conflicting styles that have already taken playing the C major suite: the contrast between the scalar style of the opening of the Prelude and the the arpeggiated style of the Courante, for example. In the Bourrées, we get both. The first Bourrée jumps about merrily between stepwise and skipwise motion, whereas the second Bourrée is almost exclusively stepwise. Bearing this in mind, it’s up the performer to decide how much to differentiate between affects in the two Bourrées. This is where I’m going to confess to a pet hate: the common practice of playing the second Bourrée in a hushed pianissimo up the D string and slurring the you-know-what out of it. You get to hear this a lot on recordings and in performance, and it’s driving me up a tree. I believe it originated in the frightful edition of the Suites by Pierre Fournier (1), which you still find all sorts of students and professionals using, people who in my always intemperate opinion should know better. Here’s what the Bourrées look like in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript. There are relatively few slurs, but (perhaps unusually) rather few ambiguities. I think this gives us a pretty good idea of how to approach it, at least from a bowings point of view.

A word about Bach editions. As I’ve said, I’m basing the bowings (and sometimes the notes themselves) that I use in this project on a facsimile of Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of the Suites, made some time in the 1720s. Now, this method isn’t for everyone. I have my undergraduate students buy the facsimile for reference, but they need an edition they can write pencil markings on, and they need it to be easy to read. Usually I have them use August Wenzinger’s classic scholarly edition (2), or the Kirsten Beisswenger one that I’ve been using recently for day-to-day Bach playing. (There are some discrepancies between the two, but I think Wenzinger’s edition is reliable enough.)

There are also times when students of Bach, often the ones who are learning the Suites for the first time, need a little extra help. In this case, I think it’s perfectly sensible to use an edition that provides conservative fingering and bowing suggestions, but which takes into account the work of scholarly editors and the eighteenth-century copies. A great example of this is Maurice Gendron’s thoughtful, historically-minded edition from 1982 (3). It has everything that a student would look for in Fournier’s edition (bowings, fingerings) but Baroque style is always considered. Nothing is done capriciously. Whereas Fournier…well, he’s sort of my bête noire. I love his playing in nineteenth-century salon pieces, because there’s really no one finer for that sort of thing, but I can’t stand his edition of Bach and I can’t stand his recordings of Bach. I seldom hear a recording of the Suites that I really can’t bear to listen to, but his is one. And yet so many modern cellists and students of the cello are taking Fournier’s ultra-Romantic renditions as a desideratum. When I meet one, I suppress a disdainful shudder and hand them a CD of, say, either Anner Bylsma’s recordings. Once you’ve listened to a historically informed performance practitioner–or even someone who doesn’t claim to be HIPP but still plays in a convincingly Bachian style, such as Steven Isserlis–you can’t go back to the overblown romanticism of mid-twentieth-century playing. I mean no disrespect to the musicians of that time, but their era is over.

Today’s video. I used Take I, which is unprecedented in this project. For some reason my concentration was off this morning, and I improvised some ornaments that were so way-out I feared Bach would come back and haunt me. I decided to stick with the least ornamented version.

Today’s practice list: C major Bourrées I & II, Gigue; E flat major Prelude, Allemande.

(1) New York: International Music Company, 1972.

(2) Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1950.

(3) Tokyo: Zen-On Music Company Ltd., 1982.


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