Toronto cellist Rachel Mercer is one brave artist, daring us to ask whether the world really needs another recording of J.S. Bach’s six great suites for unaccompanied cello – and supplying an emphatic, compelling Yes in her own interpretation.
In more than two hours of some of the most beautiful and most difficult music ever written for a solo performer, Mercer reminds us that the interpreter can be as much of a creator, not just a re-creator, as the composer. She also reminds us that, with enough preparation, a fine artist can make the most challenging material come across with the ease of natural breathing.
There probably isn’t a single professional or advanced amateur cellist who hasn’t studied some portion of the Cello Suites.
No matter the musician’s artistic level, the suites are potent technical exercises, forcing the player to find exactly the right combination of fingerings and bowing to separate Bach’s thousands of notes into melody and accompaniment, subject and counter-subject, in neatly organized phrases.
Despite the fact that the cello is a solo instrument, only five of the 36 total movements in the six suites are based on a simple melodic line. All the others assume the player can manage to play in harmony and counterpoint with her or himself.
The music can be played in strict, Modern time, or it can be given a sort of flexible inner rhythm like that of walking or breathing. The distance between these two poles is nearly infinite, with the most widely loved interpretations being the fairly strict takes offered by great cellists such as Yo Yo Ma and, today, Jean-Guihen Queyras on modern instruments.
Listen to the legendary Bach interpreter Pablo Casals (who brought the Cello Suites to world’s attention in a similar way to what Glenn Gould later did for the Goldberg Variations) after Ma’s disciplined sound, and the music sounds a bit messy, with varying tempos and phrasings everywhere.
Is one better or worse than the other? At this level, it’s up to the listener’s taste, not some performance-tradition standard. Despite the very different results, the secret to these classic recordings’ appeal is how effortless the music sounds.
Mercer achieves this same effortless quality. Much of the music on the two CDs released on Toronto’s independent Pipistrelle label sounds like it could have been recorded between conversations over steaming cups of green tea.
Recorded in 2011, while she had possession of a prized Stradivarius cello from the Canada Council’s Musical Instrument Bank, this album is worth savouring over and over again.
I occasionally found Mercer’s rich-voiced Old Master cello a bit overbearing in live concerts, but given the solo spotlight for two hours, the made-in-1696 “Bonjour” Strad switches from a noisome cigar-chomping gabbler into a world-class storyteller, finding the right tone and inflection at every turn in the narrative, thanks to the cellist’s masterful work on strings and bow.
Bach set the narrative in each six-movement suite like the ideal story, interweaving tighter, faster sections with slower, more reflective music. Mercer colors in the textures, while subtly reminding us of the thematic threads that link each movement.
Nothing on Mercer’s album sounds like work. The timeless music, on the verge of its 300th birthday (we assume), natural, emerges relaxed and deeply connected with the Baroque dance styles that informed Bach’s writing. At first listen, Mercer’s style is almost wanton in its desire to dance and sing, but by the time the two hours are up, she has us in her arms, dancing along.
Here is one more album with a compelling argument that the stern-faced Bach was as human as the rest of us – just a lot more clever.
Album information here:
YouTube video of Mercer performing in Vermont: