Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach's fifth cello suite, in C minor, continues the experiments with texture, style, and counterpoint undertaken in the first four works in the set of six. It calls for the top string of the cello to be played scordatura, in this case tuned down from A to G. This affects the sonority of the open string and the overtones produced when played with other strings, creating a distinctive effect. Some cellists disregard the unusual tuning specification, but doing so adds to the work's already formidable technical challenges.

The fifth suite's Prelude replaces the toccata-like movements of the rest of the set with an overture in the French style, beginning with a slow, moody Adagio introduction with dense chords and irregular rhythms. These lead into an Allegro section where a fugue-like counterpoint is implied but not explicitly played.

The Allemande and Courante have a mournfulness reminiscent of their counterparts in the second suite, but feature richer, denser chording. But as much as Bach explores the contrapuntal possibilities of the cello here, his truly sublime achievement is the Sarabande. It offers some 100 notes of one-voice, single-line playing, with no chords and an unchanging rhythmic pattern. And yet its mix of great leaps and leading tones convey a lifetime of sorrow and wisdom. The harmonic structure is haunting, providing one point of tension after another with little resolution until the very end. The Gavotte galanterie is chordal and anguished again despite its name, but the final Gigue closes on a much more ambiguous, hushed note than does its D minor relative.