One of the liveliest public radio programs on music that we regularly listen to is John Schaefer’s “Soundcheck.” His curiosity about all kinds of music seems infinite and his appreciation is highly infectious.
A recent show really caught our ear when Schaefer interviewed a pop music critic from Canada, Eric Sidlin, who grew up knowing very little about classical music. One night, out of idle curiosity (or perhaps an unconscious search for something more), he attended a concert that featured the Bach Cello Suites. Sidlin was so moved by this unfamiliar, haunting music that he spent close to a decade researching the mysterious background of these works. He describes his transformational journey of discovery in his new book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.
These Suites–most probably never performed in Bach’s lifetime–languished in obscurity for almost 200 years until they were resurrected single-handedly in the early part of the 20th century by the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). His historic recording of the complete set, made during the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), was a testament to his strongly held belief that Bach’s music could remind humanity of the good even when evil seemed to be overtaking the world.
The extraordinarily transcendent power of this music has been eloquently described by one of our greatest contemporary cellists, Yo-Yo Ma. In his personal commentary to the album, Artist’s Choice– Yo-Yo Ma: Music that Matters to Him (Sony Music A 53869), he puts at the very top of his list the “Sarabande” from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5 as performed by Pablo Casals. The performance here is from the historic recording.
Yo-Yo Ma writes: “What I love about Casals is that he used to say he was, first of all, a human being; second, he was a musician; third, he was a cellist. I think those priorities were very much demonstrated in the way he lived his life. In an interview I heard when Casals was in his nineties, he was asked to choose the one piece he would want to play for the whole world. He selected the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Suite. So this is a self-chosen piece by Casals of the very music he had championed throughout his life.”
We are also bringing you Yo-Yo Ma’s inspired interpretation of Bach’s “Sarabande,” so you can see, as well as hear, it played by two geniuses of the cello at very different points in time. You will see that Ma’s “Sarabande” is a masterpiece of profound reflection. The cello seems to speak in the voice of a body at rest. Consisting of two symmetrical halves, the music moves with the calming pulse of a slow exhale as it courses downward, balanced by a series of inhaling upward reaching phrases. As you listen, pay attention to your own breathing. You may find it unconsciously synchronizing with the music.
Casals’ interpretation of the same piece is strikingly different. For starters, notice that Casals plays it in 2 minutes and 47 seconds, while Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition takes around four minutes. Performing under the stress of a horrific civil war, Casals communicates a much greater sense of urgency, hearing the music in phrases of four measures each. There is a determination in his playing, complete with the sound of his powerful fingers striking the fingerboard for certain key notes.
Yo-Yo Ma, on the other hand, tends to emphasize each measure as a meditative moment. The result is a more broadly philosophical statement of the music. He seems to be savoring the nuance in almost every note. Watch his fingers and his face. As he plays he seems to be completely in a state of flow, at one with the music.
In both performances we hear, above all, the transcendent voice of Bach. We hope it resonates for you the way it did for Eric Sidlin, the now-former pop music critic. This music gave a new and rich direction to his life, one he never expected. That is the power of art.
Have you ever had an experience like that with music?
And what did you think about the different interpretations here? Did you respond to one more than the other? Why? We’d love to know your reactions.