Leading Seattle arts critic Pippa Kiraly sits down with cellist Colin Carr for a fascinating conversation on the upcoming marathon of JS Bach’s Six Cello Suites.
PK What is it about Bach’s cello suites that appeal to you?
CC The cello is limited by its very nature to be a single-line instrument, which up until Bach wrote the suites had barely been used as a solo instrument.These pieces give us full harmony with the minimum amount of notes by the use of broken chords and implied notes. It’s absolutely fascinating. Then of course there’s the physical sensation of being alone on stage with nowhere to hide, and nobody to blame!
PK Why play all the suites at once?
CC They represent a journey. As we travel through 1-6 we are more and more scaling the heights. They start simply and each becomes a little more involved emotionally, until 5 and 6 reach the pinnacle of what can be achieved on the cello. These two are written differently—they are longer, and both have different tuning. In number 5 the top string is tuned down a whole tone which releases the tension on the instrument. It is more resonant, definitely darker. and it gives us the ability to play chords that we couldn’t with regular tuning; also the wonderful overtones from the top string now being G, and therefore sympathetic to the low C string. No 6 is the opposite, brilliant, heroic, triumphant. It was written for a five stringed instrument, with an extra E string on the top. Most people nowadays play with four strings, which creates some problems but it extends the range considerably, and I try to minimize any sense of adversity.
In No 1 Bach is asking himself Can it be done? By the time he gets to the end the answer is a resounding YES! Bach has found a way to communicate through a collective human soul. The heightened emotional sensitivity is palpable. I would like people to join me on this incredible journey which starts like a trail in the woods and ends up on the highest mountain with a wonderful view of the world. I’ve run a marathon. It’s the same feeling. Training, excitement, exhilaration, exhaustion, and the audience with you every step of the way.
Are they or aren’t they dances? The six pieces all start with a prelude and all have baroque dance movements. Is this important? Should people want to dance? They weren’t intended for dance, but I like to have the image of graceful and elegant Baroque dance when I play them.
PK Is there more to hear in these suites if they are played with attention to period performance practice or in a more contemporary style
CC One fascinating thing about them is the enormous variety of different cellists’ performances. I approach them from a more Baroque perspective, vibrato used very sparingly, no glissandos, clarity of articulation, and attention to how I feel they would have been played in the 18th century. No one has any idea if they were even written for performance. They are performed often now in churches. Bach would be horrified. He wrote church music for churches. Sometimes I am horrified by an inappropriate 20th and 21st century style. I try to open students’ eyes and ears to the possibility that they can say more with fewer words, as Bach does with fewer notes! I try to empower them to feel and express the greatness of this music with a passion born of good taste. There is still limitless freedom for improvisation and spontaneity.