The Bach Suites Dilemma – by Laurence Lesser

The Bach Suites Dilemma – by Laurence Lesser

For longer than any of us may care to remember, we know that violinists are blessed with a beautiful manuscript of Bach’s 6 solo works they have, carefully written out by the composer; but sometime after he wrote the 6 suites for solo cello (finished by 1721) his manuscript disappeared, probably after his death, and has to date never been found.  We are very lucky to have 2 sources, each important in different ways, that have saved these works from oblivion: copies by his wife, Anna Magdalena and by his Leipzig fellow musician, Johann Peter Kellner.  While each has its share of problems, we have more than enough from them to be able to perform these great works.  But still, no MS from the composer . . .  In this context, the existence of JS’s contemporaneous transcription for lute of the fifth suite, with a manuscript in the composer’s hand, is of greatest interest and value. (This MS and both copies have all been dated by musicologists as ca. 1728-9.)

I first became aware of this manuscript in 1965, as I was preparing for the Tchaikovsky Competition of the following year with my teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky.  He had an old-fashioned copy of it on heavy photo paper.  The original is in the Royal Library in Brussels and can now be seen on IMSLP.  While the lute version is in g minor, it is really the same piece as the c minor cello suite, but the differences are truly revelatory:  filled out counterpoint in the fuga and other movements as well as a bass line in Gavotte II; unexpected harmonies in double stops throughout, while in the cello version there are mostly only solo notes; and written out ornaments.  I needed only the suite’s prelude for the competition and focused on that.  My performance of it in Moscow was widely commented on, but then life went on and I didn’t pay more attention to it.

In 1983 I was named President of NEC and, while I never stopped performing and teaching, I also didn’t have enough time to learn new repertoire let alone return to what I had started with the suite.  As that big administrative role was winding down, I was determined to do my best to catch up and one of the most obvious things to do was to make a full transcription from the lute manuscript back to cello.  I completed that transcription late spring of 1995 and made a test recording of it that June at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada.

Over the years since, I returned to the transcription often, tweaking it to make it more realistically playable (there is no way a cello can play all the added notes for the lute).  I learned that most important was to add only enough notes to highlight the differences and I settled on a version in which the Prelude is done based on the lute version and all the dance movements are first played in the cello version and the lute version in the repeats.  And I can also add that perhaps with a few extra ornaments, every note in my version is written by the composer (not even filled out chords across 3 strings).

Why is this version important?  Simply because it gives us so many insights into Bach’s thinking about harmony and clear examples of his ideas about ornaments – not simply where to add them, but equally where not to.  I think of the comparison in the dance movements as “black and white” vs “color” – each version wonderful but the differences truly fascinating.  Even if cellists choose not to play this version, my hope is that an awareness of his added ideas will be heard internally and influence the performance.  Maybe the most telling movement is the Sarabande, almost identical in both versions, but with some startling deeply felt harmonizations of not more than about a dozen notes.

So, there it is!  You can hear it in my complete suites recording released in 2015 and available through my website laurencelesser.com, where you will find more written about my approach to the suites – and other things, hopefully also of interest.  I am now exploring a way to publish the transcription and share that result on the website when that’s done.

By | 2017-03-10T21:06:11+00:00 January 22nd, 2017|Categories: Performance, Repertoire|Tags: , , |

About the Author:

Laurence Lesser

A native of Los Angeles, LAURENCE LESSER was a top prizewinner in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and a participant in the historic Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts and recordings.  Mr. Lesser has appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the Tokyo Philharmonic and other major orchestras.  His New York debut recital in 1969 was greeted as “triumphant” and “magical.”  His Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations in Hamburg, Die Welt stated, “could not have been more thoroughly realized than is this staggering performance.”

As a chamber musician he has participated at the Casals, Marlboro, Spoleto, Ravinia, Music@Menlo and Santa Fe festivals.  He has also been a member of juries for numerous international competitions, including chairing the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1994.

A 1961 graduate of Harvard College, where he studied mathematics, LESSER went to Köln, Germany the following year to work with Gaspar Cassadó. Just before, he played at the Zermatt master classes for Pablo Casals, who declared, “Thank God who has given you such a great talent!”  He won first prize at the Cassadó Competition in Siena, Italy in 1962. When he returned to Los Angeles, he studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and soon became his teaching assistant and regular faculty member at the University of Southern California.

During the remainder of the 60’s he was a frequent contributor to the artistic life of Los Angeles.  Notably, his 1965 performance of the Schoenberg Cello Concerto to inaugurate the Bing Auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was its first hearing with orchestra after Emanuel Feuermann introduced the work in the late 1930’s.  He recorded it the following year for Columbia Masterworks.  He left Los Angeles in 1970 to become Professor of Cello at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute.

LESSER was invited in 1974 by Gunther Schuller, the then President of New England Conservatory, to head NEC’s cello department.  In 1983 he was named the school’s President, a position from which he retired in 1996 to return to performing and teaching.  A high point of his tenure as President was the complete restoration of the 1000-seat Jordan Hall, one of the world’s greatest acoustical spaces.

Teaching has always been an important part of LESSER’s artistic activity.  His former students, numbering in the hundreds, are soloists, orchestra section leaders and members, chamber musicians and teachers, active throughout the USA and in many other countries around the world.

In September, 2005 LESSER was named “Chevalier du Violoncelle” by the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center at Indiana University.

LESSER’s previous recordings include the complete Beethoven with pianist HaeSun Paik on Bridge Records.  Other labels include RCA, Columbia, Melodiya and CRI.