Welcome to the Crista Channel!
I’m so happy to share the first recordings that I have made on my new viola. I had the privilege of recording in NYC’s beautiful St. Peter’s Church, which boasts generous acoustics (hopefully not too generous!) and offers an inspiring and peaceful environment amidst the bustle of NYC.
From the first moment I played on this viola, I was able to hear my own “sound” – maybe it was just sheer excitement and anticipation playing tricks on my ears, or maybe there was actually something there. Either way it was a special moment! Each day, the sound of the viola changes just a bit, especially during this cold and dry New York winter. Sometimes, I guess the wood of the instrument thinks it’s still part of a tree in the warm Mediterranean, and not a fine string instrument living in subzero Manhattan! On more humid days, I can hear the viola struggling to find its voice and clear its head - the same way I feel on sticky, rainy days! Either way, we’re in it together, figuring out our sounds and trying to improve each other every day we meet.
From the moment I decided to record the Crista Channel, I knew that the first six months would be dedicated to recording the six movements of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major. If I were stuck on a desert island with only one piece of music, I would be happy just playing the Bach Suites (granted I could find a little bit of shade), since they so fully capture the range and scope of the viola.
Violinists who play the Bach Sonatas and Partitas have the benefit of working directly from Bach’s autographed manuscript, which is filled with bowings and articulations. Us violists don’t have it so easy. You might have noticed above that I said I would be recording Bach’s Cello Suites, not Bach’s Viola Suites. The suites were composed for cello and got lost in the shuffle for many years after Bach’s death. Pablo Casals brought them to public attention in the early 1900s after discovering an edition of the suites in a thrift shop in Barcelona when he was only 13 years old. He studied them carefully and began to perform them publicly as his career developed. He finally agreed to record the complete suites when he was 48 years old, bringing them great popularity and becoming the first master of this beloved music.
There is no autographed manuscript or urtext edition of the Cello Suites. However, there are several secondary sources that exist: a hand-written copy by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena, a copy by organist Johan Peter Kellner who penned manuscripts of many Bach compositions, and then two manuscripts by unknown copyists commonly known as “C and D”. These four manuscripts contain conflicting bowings and articulations, and in some cases there are no bowings at all.
This lack of one accepted manuscript leaves a lot of decision making to the player. Oftentimes, one musician will play the suites for another musician, proudly presenting their careful interpretation, only to be met with shock and horror over drastically different stylistic choices that are apparently “all wrong”. In short, it gets very personal!
In addition to reconciling multiple manuscripts, violists also have to make sense of the various issues (resonance, fingerings, chords, register changes) that come from adapting a composition that was intended for a different instrument. Although I think all six Cello Suites are beautiful on viola (yes, I may be biased), I think the C Major Suite is the most natural fit and brings out the purest and most resonant sonorities that the alto range has to offer.
The Prelude sets the mood and character for the entire suite, and must establish the key and tonality. I have always thought that each of the Bach Preludes could stand on their own as small solo works, like short stories or novellas.
The first bar of C Major Suite consists of a simple, descending scalar gesture, very elegantly establishing the range and timbre of the viola. The first several phrases contain rising and falling sequences that elaborate on the C Major key, establishing a steady harmonic rhythm without any sense of restriction. When we eventually arrive in e minor (around 00:54), we enter a far more improvisatory and uncertain world that slowly builds and erupts into a sustained pedal on the dominant. The dominant is the key found on the fifth note of the scale, in C Major it's G. A pedal is simply when the music sits on a certain sonority repeatedly – think of an organist holding their foot on one of the “pedals”. Since the purpose of the dominant is to build excitement and anticipation of the return of the tonic (home base), this part of the piece is both joyful and unsettled at the same time – pedantically emphasizing G while always reaching towards home. We finally break out of the pedal (around 02:22), and in no time find ourselves back in C Major (around 02:47).
Bach doesn’t leave it at that, and continues to build even further with a rising sequence. At a certain point, the only possible thing Bach can do to build even more excitement is to turn to silence punctuated by resonant four note chords. These chords (from 03:04 to 03:15) lead to one last coda section. As if to say the whole journey was no big deal at all since home is home, the piece ends with the same simple scalar statement that we found at the very beginning. It seems pretty easy while all is said and done - that is if you’re Bach and know how to tell a good story.