Suite No. 5 in C minor

My favourite of the Bach suites, this dark, velvety colossus opens with a Prelude that is an introduction in the French Overture style, followed by a fugue. The introduction, although characterised by clipped rhythms, is rhapsodic and free — an improvisatory exploration of the key of C minor and the colours it can create on a cello with the top string tuned down to a G. This re-tuning loosens the tension of the strings on the bridge, darkening the sound of the cello, and enabling wonderful three- and four-note chords to be played with ease. The ensuing fugue is a character opposite: although the fugue is a formal, sometimes intellectual exercise in composition, this particular one is full of dancing rhythm and pleasing symmetry.

By the fifth suite in his series of six, Bach is already leaving behind the strictures he imposed on himself earlier by giving himself more and more freedom to explore the dance forms and the emotions he can express with them. The Allemande, a German dance in a simple four time, continues the improvisatory feel of the opening of the suite and as well as being ‘grave and ceremonious’ as are many Allemandes — it can also be playful and witty, with moments of soaring imagination.

A lively French dance in three, the Courante here takes on the character of a jester, fooling with the rhythms to the point where you can sometimes lose the sense of where the first beat is, until, suddenly, you are at the end of a stanza. This comic relief makes way for the Sarabande. There is no other movement written for cello by Bach that has so few notes, but it seems to go beyond music. To me, this piece speaks of geometry, architecture, nature and philosophy as well being, simply, from the heart. Few composers have said so much with so little.

The following pair of Gavottes are a mysterious joy. The first is a spinning virtuosic celebration of a dance, the second seems to turn itself inside out with its triplet wanderings — like a Zen koan in musical form. Finally, a rollicking smiling Gigue that completes the suite in celebratory fashion.

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