Bach, Banff and the Baroque

I've been busy deciphering the mysteries of Bach's Sixth Cello Suite, deep in the snow-capped Canadian mountains.

I've been in Banff, Canada now for a week undertaking a solo creative residency focusing on Bach's Sixth Cello Suite. The Banff Centre is situated in a beautiful national park surrounded by the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the ideal environment in which to immerse myself in music. Winter in Banff is something quite special. Although it has been rather warm by Canadian standards, we are now reaching temperatures of about minus 20 degrees Celsius. A thick blanket of snow covers the mountainous landscape dotted with pine trees, and the occasional deer and elk roam around the campus. In contrast to the pristine stillness outside, inside the centre is buzzing with activity. Artists from all over the world are here in fields as diverse as puppetry and poetry. Such an eclectic mix of creative people makes for stimulating mealtime conversations.

Devoting so much thought and time to the Sixth Cello Suite has been a real delight, both challenging and fulfilling. This weekend I perform the first three movements in Canmore, a town south-east of Banff. The Sixth Suite was certainly written for the "violoncello" but not the violoncello as we know it today. The words "a cinq cordes" are written on Anna Magdalena Bach's transcription of the work, indicating it was intended for an instrument with five strings. Adding to the mystery, we have no autograph manuscript of the work and other transcriptions do not contain these words. This extra string, however, is not the only discrepancy in our modern-day understanding of a violoncello. It is now widely understood that Bach was writing for the violoncello da spalla, a five-stringed instrument played on the arm like a viola. Here's the Gigue of the Sixth Suite on violoncello de spalla, performed by Sergey Malov.

Thus performing the Sixth Suite – which was intended for a five-stringed instrument – on a modern-day cello is quite a challenge, requiring the use of high positions and awkward hand placements. The great Rostropovich aptly described the Sixth Suite as "a symphony for cello". Regardless, there are a plethora of recordings from which I have drawn inspiration, made by cellists who have overcome its technical challenges and interpreted this music in their own right. If you would like to do some further listening, I would recommend the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras or Mischa Maisky:

Also a fascinating is Yo-Yo Ma's film version featuring Torvill & Dean.

Of course, the beauty of JS Bach lies in its ability to be re-interpreted time and time again, and not only on the cello. I've stumbled upon versions of the Sixth Suite from marimba... ukulele!

On that note I leave you to pick up my cello, get back to practice, and immerse myself in the ever-expanding depth and beauty of Bach.

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Mathisha Panagoda
Mathisha Panagoda is a cellist and founder of the Sydney Camerata. A passionate chamber and orchestral musician, he loves to travel, put on concerts and look for interesting opportunities to collaborate with like-minded people. His experiences are diverse and this blog seeks to reflect his journey as a traveling cellist, chamber musician and concert enthusiast.
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