Cello Suite No.3

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

The Suite in C major is probably the most popular of Bach's six suites for solo cello, among cellists and listeners alike. How could one resist the work's mix of nobility, exuberance, and relative contrapuntal simplicity? Casals, who more than any other performer brought these suites to the forefront of the cello repertory, found in it a heroic quality. Yet this suite also has close ties to its brethren. The Prelude recalls the discursive improvisatory flavor of the second suite, but opens with a descending figure and a mood of bright sunshine instead of the study in tragedy and tension that the second suite undertakes from the beginning. The Prelude also makes brilliant use of a mighty pedal point; a single note is held in the bass register while a series of progressively richer and richer figures build tension, pushing harder and harder for resolution. A similar figure is used to heighten a sense of pathos in the Prelude to the St. John Passion. Here, however, the pedal point develops instead into an expression of great warmth and happiness.

After the Prelude come a lively Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, a double Bourrée, and a Gigue. The Sarabande proceeds in a series of triple and quadruple stops that offer the cellist plenty of room for gutsy expressiveness and at the same time outline the implied polyphony that so fascinates those who hear these works. For this suite, as in the fourth suite, Bach uses a pair of Bourrées for the galant element. These reinforce the sense of buoyant optimism that pervades the work, though a sudden minor-key turn in the second Bourrée reminds us that no triumph is ever complete. But the final Gigue restores the lightness of this bouncy, virtuosic suite, perhaps the most idiomatic to the cello of all six suites.