Bach For Solo Cello: Style and Interpretation

The music of Bach is the perfect example of why “personal” interpretation should not be taught. If we listen to 20 recordings of the same piece of solo Bach, we will probably hear 20 completely different versions. In solo Bach, more perhaps than for any other composers, the same music played by different musicians can sometimes be almost unrecognisable. There are several reasons for this enormous variety in interpretations:

All this means that the interpreters can do basically anything they want with the cello suites ……. and they (we) do ! While some players have a more “authentic” approach (see Style and Epoch) others play it (and often very well, and with well-deserved success) as if it were Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Brahms, Verdi etc. An interpretation that  is wonderful and natural for some, can be inconceivably awful for others. Mischa Maisky plays them unashamedly romantically – and is hugely popular with this repertoire. For this writer, nobody interprets  Bach better than the Italian cellist Vito Paternoster who can be heard on playing brilliantly and imaginatively not just the Cello Suites but also all of the Solo Violin music of Bach, transcribed for cello.

Apart from these questions of historical or national style, the range of personal emotions/moods that the performer can give to this music – sad, happy, light, dark, comical etc is endless. This is where performers really show themselves, and where we can see how different we all are.


We  need a good, authentic, “clean” edition that has not been adulterated with well meaning cellistic and interpretative suggestions. The best, most complete source material is the Barenreiter edition which includes the four most original surviving manuscript facsimiles as well as a wonderful editorial discussion. This is however not really a playing edition but rather a “study” edition because their “playing” edition is cluttered with many alternative options (notes) from the different manuscript sources. Absolutely clean, unedited performing editions of the Bach Suites (and the Violin Sonatas and Partitas), can be found on this website, into which we can then write our own fingerings and bowings. Included with the sheet music for each movement is a “comparative edition” in which the four manuscript sources are laid out on four parallel staves for easier comparison of the differences in notes and articulations (slurs). Very often the slurs are extremely ambiguous as to where they start and finish. I have tried to reproduce graphically as many of these ambiguities as possible.


One of the biggest questions about the interpretation of Bach’s solo string music is how much (and when) to “sing” it and how much (and when) to aim for a more “spoken”, rhetorical, theatrical delivery. One of the advantages of “speaking it” more is that we can take more time. The wonderful Alban Gerhardt (cellist) recounts the story of how he once  had to play Bach’s 5th suite while his memorisation of it (made so much more difficult by the scordatura tuning) was still not 100% secure.  The doubts, obligatory hesitations, and slower tempo imposed by the insecure memory surprisingly made for a very succesful performance …… because it sounded as though the music was being improvised!! When we play Bach too metronomically, too easily, too smoothly and too fast, it can lose its improvisatory, declamatory character and can easily end up sounding like a sewing machine on automatic pilot!

The long legato sostenuto singing phrases of Romantic music are enormously facilitated by the Tourte bow, which most of us cellists use as our standard “all-weather” bow, but this bow was only invented 40 years after Bach’s death. Playing Bach with a Baroque bow teaches us a lot about Baroque style in that it teaches us to use shorter, less sustained bowstrokes. In fact Bach’s solo string music sounds absolutely magnificent on the lute or guitar, in which no note can be played legato sostenuto and all the notes have a rapid diminuendo after their initial articulation (attack). Listening to Hopkinson Smith playing the Cello Suites (especially the Sarabande and Allemande of the Sixth Suite) on the lute can make us wonder why even bother trying to play them on the cello!!


Unaccompanied Bach benefits enormously from being played in a very resonant acoustic because the echo allows the notes to ring on thus “filling out” the harmonies.  Churches are perfect for playing Bach. Not only does our instrument sound like a fantastic Stradivari, it is almost as though we are now being accompanied by our echo. The church resonance would make a muddle of melodic or contrapuntal writing, but Bach’s writing in the Suites is so “harmonic” – so many of the notes we play are “broken double-stops” – that the echo effect actually helps the music to make sense. Playing Bach in a resonant acoustic also teaches us a lot about how it could (should?) be played. Now we can play our cello as though it were a lute (or guitar) because the echo allows us to play the longer notes shorter: our bow starts the note, but it is the church resonance that maintains it. This not only makes the music sound richer and fuller, but also makes it technically easier to play because it gives us more time to shift and/or change strings to find the next note.

When we play unaccompanied Bach in a dry acoustic, the natural temptation is to to play it “long” and sostenuto, simply to try and recreate the effect of harmonic resonance and richness that the church acoustic could have given us. This is hard work!