The Vancouver Playhouse
Bach Cello Suites no.’s 1, 2, & 6 with Elinor Frey
If you hold tickets to The Luminous Hour, you DO NOT have to change your ticket to attend the Bach Cello Suites on January 12.
Artist: Elinor Frey, cello
Run time: 75 minutes + 20min interval
At the heart of the repertoire of nearly all cellists, Bach’s cello suites are among the most appreciated works of music lovers around the world.
The suites highlight how Bach is particularly adept at mixing particular characteristics of the cello. For example, because of its unique range, from the low bass to the soprano, the cello is able to create the illusion of multiple voices, a polyphony inspired by the use of Bach’s harmony and melody, wonderful techniques that intrigue the ear at every moment. The suites were probably composed around 1720 when Bach lived in Cöthen in the service of Prince Leopold, when he composed much secular and instrumental music, including works for solo violin and the famous Brandenburg concertos.
There will be a pre-concert chat with Elinor Frey hosted by Suzie LeBlanc at 7 p.m.
This concert is generously sponsored by the RPC Family Foundation. Special thanks to Janey Bennett for the loan of her 5-string cello.
J.S. BACH (1685 – 1750)
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
Minuet I & II
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Minuet I & II
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012
Gavottes I & II
At the heart of the repertoire of nearly all cellists, Bach’s six cello suites are among the most appreciated works of music lovers around the world. The suites highlight how Bach is particularly adept at writing for the cello, an instrument that shares qualities with Bach’s two main instruments: keyboards and the violin. The cello’s unique range, one that extends from the low bass to the soprano, is a characteristic that helps create the illusion of multiple voices. The inspired polyphony in the suites, created by harmonies and melodies intertwined, showcases Bach’s wonderful compositional techniques that intrigue the ear at every moment.
The suites were probably composed in the early-1720s when Bach lived in Cöthen in the service of Prince Leopold, a time when he composed much secular and instrumental music, including works for solo violin and the famous Brandenburg concertos. It is possible, however, that he finished their composition in Leipzig, where Bach moved in 1723. This is perhaps evidenced by the sixth suite that calls for a five-string cello, an instrument that was also featured in various cantatas, but only after his move to Leipzig. The fifth string, a higher string tuned to e’, allows for an extended range, propelling the music into a joyful and captivating higher register.
For today’s concert, the main source is the manuscript copy of Anna Magdalena Bach, as no Bach autograph copies survive. However, the fifth suite also exists in a version for lute for which we have an autograph score in Bach’s hand. This version, in g minor, provides interesting additional chords and articulations that enhance our understanding of the c minor cello suite. There is no known dedicatee for Bach’s cello suites, although a few musicians in Bach’s circle could have likely played them. Two cellists, Bernard Christian Linike and Christian Ferdinand Abel, also a gambist, moved to Cöthen after the dissolution of the Berlin court chapel around 1713. Abel’s son, Carl Friedrich, became the closest friend and collaborator to Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian.
Interestingly, many prominent cellists of the time played with an underhand bow grip, as typically used for the viola da gamba. However, the underhand and overhand bow grips were both used in Bach’s time, as were other non-standardized practices on the cello such as different postures, numbers of strings (5 strings for the sixth suite), and tunings. An alternate tuning, or “scordatura”, is used for the fifth suite. The cello tuned to C-G-d-g (meaning the top string tuned a whole tone lower than standard tuning) suits the resonances of c minor and harkens to earlier tuning practices in Bologna and elsewhere.
The use of ornamentation in Bach’s suites is a topic of constant debate and changing practices among today’s performers. While many of the more florid ornamental gestures, such as adding typical trills, turns, and harmonic diminutions, are already provided by Bach in the score, there is still ample space for the performer to improvise articulations, further embellishments, tone colorations, and other rhetorically communicative devices. For music of this era, performers share their unique interpretations with an actively engaged audience. The listener’s familiarity with “Baroque” or “Galant” musical language enhances the communication possible between them. Balancing elegance, clarity, and creative freshness becomes part of the performer’s art. My longtime mentor, musicologist and cellist Marc Vanscheeuwijck, asserts that “in the stylistic languages of early eighteenth-century painting, architecture, or literature and rhetoric, stating the obvious is never considered to be tasteful, witty, creative, or even appropriate. Much in the language of late-Baroque ornamentation is anchored precisely in concealing the structure—or delaying the listener’s or viewer’s feeling of gratification or confirmation in order to intensify the pleasure of the unknown—but always maintaining the characteristic Baroque tension between two opposite qualities (the structure vs. the ornament).”
Each suite is ordered with six movements, a Prélude, an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, a set of dance movements (Minuets, Bourées, or Gavottes), and ends with a Gigue. The opening Prélude is designed to introduce the piece and attract the attention of the audience with an improvisatory, instrumental quality. The Major-key suites follow the customary “loosening” of the fingers with arpeggiations, scales, and flourishes, while the d minor suite Prelude is a bit more meandering. The c minor suite follows the form of the typical “French Overture” style, meaning a slow section with characteristic dotted rhythms, followed by a fugue (in the Italian sonata style), and then a return to the slow section, here accomplished by the Allemande itself. Overall, Bach’s Allemandes demonstrate a dignified and stately manner, suitable for the “entrée” of a “VIP” into an evening’s entertainment. Other movements of the c minor suite also reflect a more “French” style: the Courante is more majestic and rhythmically complex than the more “running” Italianate counterparts of the other suites, and the c minor Gigue uses the typical French “sautillant” (skipping) rhythm replete with lively syncopations and hemiolas. Bach’s Sarabandes manifest a typical early-18th century approach to this dance, a dance that was originally sensual and tempestuous, however tamed by the French to be balanced, tender, grave, and ceremonious. The “gallantries” in each suite, Minuets (Suites 1 & 2), Bourrées (Suites 3 & 4), or Gavottes (Suites 5 & 6), offer a French folk style that delightfully blends both the serious and merry.
- Notes by Elinor Frey
Elinor Frey, cello
Elinor Frey is a leading Canadian-American cellist, gambist, and researcher. Her albums on the Belgian label Passacaille and Canadian label Analekta – many of which are world premiere recordings – are the fruit of long collaborations with artists such as Suzie LeBlanc, Marc Vanscheeuwijck, and Lorenzo Ghielmi, as well as with composers including Maxime McKinley, Linda Catlin Smith, Christian Mason, and Lisa Streich. Elinor’s recording of cello sonatas by Giuseppe Clemente Dall’Abaco received a Diapason d’Or and her critical editions of Dall’Abaco’s cello music is published in collaboration with Walhall Editions. Early Italian Cello Concertos, her album in collaboration with Rosa Barocca orchestra, won the 2023 JUNO Award for Classical Album of the Year (small ensemble).
Elinor is the artistic director of Accademia de’ Dissonanti, an organization for performance and research, and she has performed throughout the Americas and in Europe in recital and with numerous chamber ensembles and orchestras (Constantinople, Les idées heureuses, Il Gardellino, Tafelmusik, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, etc.). In March 2023, she performed Boccherini and Sammartini concertos with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
Recipient of dozens of grants and prizes supporting performance and research, including the US-Italy Fulbright Fellowship (studying with Paolo Beschi in Como, Italy) and a recent research residency at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Elinor holds degrees from McGill, Mannes, and Juilliard. She teaches Baroque cello and performance practice at McGill University and the Université de Montréal and is a Visiting Fellow in Music (2020–2023) at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. Frey was awarded Québec’s Opus Prize for “Performer of the Year” in 2021.