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Although this hasn’t been irrefutably authenticated, Johann
Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) probably wrote his “Six Suites for
Cello” between the years 1717 and 1723. The type of
instrument he envisioned playing these pieces has also not
yet been proven beyond doubt. It may have been a large,
shoulder-held instrument called a viola da spalla, or it may have
been more akin to the modern type of cello instrument without
an endpin, which was held in place between the legs of the player.
What we do know is that since Pablo Casals (1876-1973) first
recorded these pieces in 1925, cellists have flocked to the
works for both study and performance purposes. Many famous
cellists have seemingly recorded them as a “rite of passage,”
often more than once.

French cellist Paul Tortelier (1914-1990) is one of the these
performers and this DVD, “Paul Tortelier: Testament To Bach –
The Complete Cello Suites”
is his third perusal of them, taped
just months before he died. This performance was given at the
ancient Abbey of Saint-Michel de Cuxa, in celebration of the
40th anniversary of the Prades Festival. Pablo Casals founded
this event in honor of the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death,
and regarded Tortelier as a trusted collaborator. Although his
performances are taped in mono, the sound is quite good.

Tortelier was one of the elite cellists of the 20th century. His
notable accomplishments included playing the solo cello part of
“Don Quixote,” under the direction of its composer, Richard
Strauss (1864-1949), and serving as principal cellist of the
Boston Symphony during the end of the 1930’s, under the
direction of Maestro Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951).

Tortelier’s son, conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, wrote the liner
notes for this disc. He indicated that his father was faced with
a dilemma at the time of these performances: He could either
undergo surgery for his ailing heart and cancel his concerts,
or give the performances and take his chances. Tortelier opted
to perform, to the detriment of his lifespan. Having made the
ultimate sacrifice to share his talents, the valedictory qualities
of Tortelier’s performances are quite moving, and as DVD
viewers, we are richer for this experience.

Tortelier’s playing had a full, rich tone, and as mentioned
earlier, it was captured magnificently by the recording
engineers. The playing wasn’t flawless by any means,
particularly in the “Sixth Suite,” which requires much playing
in the extreme upper registers of the instrument.

As a side note, it should be mentioned that this “Suite” is
considered by many scholars to have been written for a
five-string instrument, thus eliminating the need for
playing in the extreme upper thumb position on a
standard four-string instrument. Many players who
specialize in “authentic instrument” performances, such
as Anner Bylsma and Pieter Wispelwey, opt for this five-string
approach. Most others don’t, which means that they need a
“monster technique,” to perform the piece in a proper fashion.
At this late stage of his career, Tortelier was a bit shaky when
performing this work, which was the longest of the six pieces.
However, he negotiated the extreme upper register the best
that he could.

Each of the other “Suites” has its own special qualities. On the
whole, the first two or three are easier, from a purely technical
standpoint. They are also shorter that the last three pieces.
For example, the “First Suite,” isn’t much longer than 20 minutes,
whereas the “Sixth Suite” as performed by Tortelier, lasts about
32 minutes. All of these works are in six movements, which
begin with a Prelude and end with a Gigue. The intervening
movements consist of standard dance forms, such as the
Courante, Sarabande and Menuet, etc. Experiencing this entire
set of “Suites” as an aggregate is a tremendous odyssey. I’d
advise viewers of this disc to break them into smaller groups,
thus avoiding “musical numbness.”

From a technical standpoint, there is no doubt that better
renditions of these works are available on DVD. However, I’m glad
that I viewed Tortelier’s performances, particularly because I’d
never seen him perform before. These pieces defy the term,
“definitive,” and I would advise anyone to check out as many
available versions as possible, to get to the true heart of them.
“Paul Tortelier: Testament to Bach – The Complete Cello Suites”
is an important and moving document, with a running time of
two hours and 36 minutes. It was released during 2008 by
the VAI label.