On paper – Steven Isserlis – The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion (Faber)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ask Steven Isserlis the music he would take to a desert island, and his answer would surely be the six Bach Cello Suites. The cellist has lived with their music all his adult life, and having released his award-winning recording of them for Hyperion in 2007, he now expresses his deep love and admiration for them in written form.

What’s the book like?

In a word, invigorating. Having lived with the suites myself for 35+ years as an amateur cellist, your reviewer is very much a convert – but reading this gave me enthusiasm anew, for Isserlis reveals new treasures about this wonderful music at every turn.

Crucially he does this in a way that will appeal to cellists and non-cellists alike, and even those who struggle with musical terms. A helpful glossary is on hand to help here, but so is an introduction that sets out this celebration of six works where mystery, expression and originality walk hand-in-hand.

The origins of the suites are shrouded in mystery, right down to their authorship. Isserlis tackles these questions head-on, in a wholly compelling way. He confronts the doubts, examines the existing performing editions, and looks at the role of Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena in their publication, all without getting too bogged down in musicology. There is healthy but qualified assumption and speculation, made as a music lover but backed up with firm arguments from Bach scholars past and present.

Isserlis looks at the construction of each suite in great detail, marvelling at Bach’s consistent marriage of mathematical precision and emotional outpouring. He uses the scholarly texts but also leans heavily and most enjoyably on his perspective from the pure, musical instinct of a performer. This approach lifts the music from the page, frequently inspiring the reader to listen along.

This instinct leads to a central, compelling case for a subtext for the suites, describing the life of Christ in a way that can be keenly experienced by the listener but which also makes a great deal of musical sense, with the caveat that the cellist’s conclusions are largely speculative.

What is beyond doubt is the technical mastery shown by Bach in writing for the cello, and the inspiration that flowed so readily and so inevitably in writing the suites, lifting the instrument and its potential to a higher plain. The six suites are remarkable pieces both individually and collectively, as are the six movements of each – and Isserlis brings them to life as he writes. He celebrates their role in the life of any cellist while also, under his breath, lightly cursing some of the technical difficulties as the cycle progresses.

Readers can opt to take the book from start to finish, taking in each of the 36 movements, but the layout rewards repeat visits to dip in to individual parts and elements of their composition. This is ideal not just for serious, practicing cellists but also for individual listener preferences.

Does it all work?

Yes, in several ways. Isserlis is a fluent and passionate writer, putting the music first at all times, so that reading the book will almost always lead to a first hand encounter with the music. That is the surest guide to success for any book on music, surely!

Is it recommended?

Yes, on pretty much every level. For cellists – either full or part-time, like your reviewer – this book is essential and thought-provoking reading. It reveals afresh the many delights to be found in experiencing this wonderful music, and will also make you want to listen to more Bach, the choral works especially, to explore the fascinating parallels drawn between these and the suites.

Non-cellists should not hesitate to approach the book either, for there are many entertaining and thoughtful stories in the book that prove richly rewarding.

This is a fine achievement, celebrating a body of work that all cellists hold dear. The music lifts from the page and into our homes with an easy candour and compelling storytelling. It is a wonderful achievement.

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