By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | February 21, 2009
At the age of 13, not long after he had begun playing the cello, Pablo Casals was browsing in a secondhand music store in Barcelona. On a dusty shelf, he noticed the scores of six suites for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach. The year was 1890, and these works were virtually unknown. None of Casals's teachers had so much as mentioned them, and the cellists who knew them regarded them mainly as exercises.
Casals, though, sensed that he had stumbled on a prize of almost limitless value. "I hugged my treasures all the way home," he later wrote. "I started playing them in a state of indescribable excitement." Where others saw technical studies, he heard the deeply spiritual expression of a great composer. Casals worked on the suites for a dozen years before beginning to play them in public. When he did, a musical revolution was launched.
Thanks largely to Casals's pioneering advocacy, the suites have long ceased to be esoterica, becoming instead some of Bach's most popular and beloved works. They are, in the words of Rafael Popper-Keizer, "something kind of titanic in every cellist's repertoire. They're the kind of pieces cellists live with their whole life and feel a lot of inadequacy about."
Popper-Keizer is one of six cellists assembled by Emmanuel Music to play the suites in a weekly series of Thursday noon concerts. Rhonda Rider opens the series next week with the fourth suite; Popper-Keizer closes it five weeks later, on April 2, with the sixth. All six concerts are free and open to the public.
But what explains these pieces' exalted status, not just for listeners but for the instrumentalists who play them? In part, says Popper-Keizer, it's the sheer sense of discovery that emanates from seeing them as a whole. "One of the reasons that cellists find them so compelling is that you can feel, going through the six suites, the journey that Bach was on," says Popper-Keizer. "And [the music] forces you to go on a similar journey."
He describes that journey with reference to the evolution of Bach's musical language, which is fairly straightforward in the first three suites and gradually becomes more florid. The fifth is the darkest and most emotionally intense of the set, while in the highly virtuosic sixth - written for a five-string instrument - Bach reaches what Popper-Keizer calls "a language of pure expression. The specifics of the instrument are not much of a concern. He's not making concessions to 'Maybe this will be easier on the performer.' "
Others capture the journey more poetically. In the notes to his impressive recording of the suites, British cellist Steven Isserlis writes that he has come to hear the suites as a kind of musical narrative of the life of Christ, proceeding from the mystery of Jesus' birth in the First to the anguish of the Crucifixion in the Fifth and the joyful Resurrection in the Sixth.
How one sees that voyage affects a performer's choices, which points to another reason for the suites' popularity: the interpretive flexibility the suites afford a cellist.
"The interesting thing about these suites is that, more than any other music for the instrument, they are performed in such a variety of styles," says Rider. She mentions two contrasting interpretive approaches: Casals's very personal, romantic style and Anner Bylsma's more restrained and precise approach, played on gut strings. One might add Mstislav Rostropovich's grandeur, the songful intensity of Yo-Yo Ma, and Isserlis's rhythmic grace, as well as many others.
"And no matter how you play them they're beautiful," says Rider. "That's a vehicle for them to be a very personal means of expression," a freedom not found even in some of the cello literature's other highlights.
Having a different performer play each suite is especially apt, Popper-Keizer says. "It opens up the interpretive possibilities, because the suites themselves have such radically different personalities."
Then his thoughts turn back to the technical hurdles of the Sixth suite. "I just wish I were playing an easier one."
Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church: 617-536-3356, www.emmanuelmusic.org