Bach Cello Suites – Rohan de Saram – CR5995


“De Saram is a fine player still and his playing has a sense of absorption in these remarkable scores”

“Another fine set of these matchless works in an almost perfect recording”

… each note is new: there is no hint that the music has ever been played before …

“So by his technique and personalisation we do sense that it is music which has always existed”

“you are also aware of why the cellist wants gently to share the greatness of Bach’s writing”

“A welcome addition – full of depth and colour”


Bach Suites I – VI

The four essential movements of the Suite as used by J.S. Bach are Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. Between the Sarabande and the Gigue the so-called “galanteries” were placed. In the cello Suites these were Minuets I & II for Suites I & II, Bourrées I & II for Suites III and IV and Gavottes I and II for Suites V and VI. Considering the period of history in which we are living and the fact that a united Europe and its evolution is a prominent part of our political thinking, it is interesting to note that the form of the Suite is a microcosm of the idea: Allemande from Germany, Courante or Corrente from France or Italy, Sarabande from Spain, the “galanteries” from France, “galanteries” sometimes including Polonnaise from Poland and finally Gigue from Ireland or England.

Like the six so-called English Suites and the six Partitas, both written for keyboard, the six cello Suites each start with a substantial Prelude. It is interesting to know that the six Partitas formed the first of a four-part series published under the title “Clavierübung” or “Keyboard practice” or “Keyboard studies”. The rest of the series include such works as the Italian Concerto, French Overture and the Goldberg Variations not to mention the third part which includes some of Bach’s finest Chorale Preludes for organ. The idea of studying and practising written finger exercises merely in order to acquire technical dexterity was foreign to Bach and the period in which he lived. In a similar way to the “Clavierübung” and other keyboard works by Bach, the cello Suites grow in musical dimensions and technical demands, starting with the relatively light-weight 1st Suite to the infinitely larger build of the 6th Suite. This is immediately apparent when comparing the structure and character of the six Preludes, let alone the thirty other movements of the Suites. The flowing and idyllic first Prelude in G major has a climax built around its dominant pedal point, in this instance D, shortly before the end. As we shall see, all the Preludes have this characteristic building to, or towards, a climax on a dominant pedal point, sometimes close to, at other times further away from, the end.

The Allemande following this flowing Prelude is an even more flowing two-in-a bar ₵ movement rather than the more typical 4/4, which is at a more moderate tempo, as the Allemandes of the 2nd and 3rd Suites. Unusually the 4th and 5th Suites both have the ₵ marking for their Allemandes and the 6th Suite has one of Bach’s highly ornamental, recitative-like, great slow movements, having no connection with the more usual Allemande character or rhythm.

All the Courantes in the six cello Suites are in the fast Italian style 3/4 time except the French Courante of the 5th Suite which has the 3/2 tempo with a broader and often rhythmically complex style.

The Sarabandes, apart from those of the 4th and 5th Suites, have the characteristic, slow three-in- a-bar rhythm with the stress occurring on the 2nd beat. The Sarabande of the 4th Suite, although not focusing on this typical rhythm, uses its first bar as a dominant 7th harmony moving towards the sub-dominant, giving a very Romantic colouring, such as Brahms used at the very beginning of his German Requiem. The Sarabande of the 5th Suite has the rhythm with an appoggiatura on its 2nd beat, thereby approximating the characteristic Sarabande rhythm, pervading most of its single line texture with the most unusual harmonies to be found anywhere in the cello Suites.

“Galanteries” is the name usually given to the pairs of dances placed between the Sarabandes and the Gigues. In these six Suites they have a certain symmetry in that the 1st and 2nd Suites each have a pair of Minuets, the 3rd and 4th Suites a pair of Bourées and the 5th and 6th Suites a pair of Gavottes. The second of each pair of Minuets, Bourées and Gavottes is invariably more delicate, softer and thinner in texture and is often in the contrasting major or minor theme of the main key of the Suite. This change of key is present in the first three Suites but not in the 4th, 5th and 6th Suites. Hence the second Minuet of the 1st Suite in G major, is in G minor; the second Minuet of the 2nd Suite in D minor, is in D major and the second Bourée of the 3rd Suite in C major, is in C minor.

The Gigue is a rustic dance associated with Ireland and England, but its name originates from the French “gigot” meaning “leg of lamb”, which resembles the shape of a fiddle from which the German “geige” (fiddle) would be derived. Hence the use of open strings used by the village fiddler to accompany his tunes. This is very noticeable in the Gigues of the 2nd and 3rd Suites in the passages using open strings to support the melodic line. The Gigues of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 6th Suites have a family resemblance in their use of 3/8 or 6/8 as their basic time-signatures. The Gigue of the 4th Suite is a fast moto perpetuo in 12/8 and that of the 5th Suite is dominated by the angular rhythm 3/8 said to belong particularly to the Irish Gigue.

As already mentioned at the beginning of this very brief survey of the cello Suites, the Preludes have a very important function of establishing the dimensions and character of each Suite. The first Prelude is flowing and lyrical; the second Prelude, contemplative with a passionate middle section built around a dominant pedal point closing with a calm ending; the third Prelude becomes even larger in dimension, bringing to mind the Preludes for organ, with an impressive build-up around its pedal-point and rhetorical passages punctuated by majestic four-part chords towards the end. The fourth Prelude in E flat major, approximating the organ style even more than the 3rd Prelude, is the largest of the Preludes in the normally-tuned cello, and poses certain technical problems mainly due to the key of E flat which doesn’t have open strings on its closely- related keys, as the other Suites do, but more importantly due to its sheer size and technical demands. I mentioned “for the normally-tuned cello” as the 5th Suite is entitled “Suite discordable” because Bach wished the A string to be tuned down to G. The 6th Suite was written for a different instrument, the “viola pomposa”, said to have been invented by Bach himself with a 5th string tuned to E above the cello’s top A string.

The 5th Prelude in C minor is on a large scale with a serious opening in French Ouverture style, followed by a fugue which could certainly be compared to those for organ or for solo violin, its unique feature being that it is written throughout in a single melodic line, with no double, triple or quadruple stopping except for the very occasional double stop or chord at some cadences. Yet, the exposition with four entries of the theme, sometimes separated by short episodes, is clearly laid out, with longer episodes and varied entries of the theme, punctuated by cadences at the closely related keys, including the relative major key of E flat occurring at the first major cadence.

As mentioned above, Bach wrote the 6th Suite for the “viola pomposa”, an instrument he invented to facilitate playing on a higher register than the cello techniques of his time allowed. The jubilant Prelude of the 6th Suite is in the bright key of D major, the Courante of this Suite celebrating the connection of this key with the trumpet in D. The Allemande, as already mentioned, is one of Bach’s greatest slow movements. The Sarabande is in triple and quadruple stopping throughout and could be thought of as a piece for voices. The two Gavottes have become among the most popular of Bach’s smaller pieces and have been transcribed for many instruments. The Gigue of the 6th Suite is possibly the most brilliant of all the final movements of these Suites.

© Rohan de Saram

**Artists Website

Rohan de Saram is one of the world’s most distinguished cellists. Born in Sheffield, UK, of Sinhalese parents, he began studying the cello at the age of nine with Martin Hohermann in Sri Lanka and aged eleven with Gaspar Cassado at the Academia Chigiana in Siena, Italy, At the age of sixteen, in 1956, he became the first winner of the Guilhermina Suggia Award which enabled him to study with Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico and with Sir John Barbirolli in London. In the same year he was winner of the Royal Overseas League Music Competition in London and the following year was awarded the Harriet Cohen International Music Award. Casals said of him: “There are few of his generation that have such gifts”.

As soloist he has played throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada & the former Soviet Union with the major orchestras & leading conductors of the world including Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Colin Davis, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Malcolm Sargent and William Steinberg. His debut appearance in the USA was in 1961 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Carnegie Hall at the invitation of Dmitri Mitropoulos, who described him as “ a rare genius…..a born musician……an amazing… cellist……” Mitropoulos predeceased the event so it was under the baton of Stanislav Skrowaczewski that Rohan performed Khachaturian’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.

Among the composers Rohan met and worked with at that time were Zoltan Kodaly, Dmitri Shostakovich, Francis Poulenc, Edmund Rubbra & Sir William Walton. His score of Kodaly’s Sonata Op. 8 for solo cello carries Kodaly’s hand-written praise for Rohan’s performance of this work in the presence of the composer in Oxford in May 1960. His score of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata carries similar hand-written praise from the composer after Rohan gave a recital of his sonata on the occasion of Shostakovich’s visit to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in June 1958. After one of Rohan’s recitals in America, Piatigorsky presented him with a special bow which he uses for concerts.

Rohan de Saram is also an outstanding interpreter of contemporary music and has worked personally with many leading contemporary composers. Iannis Xenakis was one of the first he worked with, giving the UK premiere of “Kottos” for solo cello. His performance of “Nomos Alpha” won him great praise from the composer who invited him to play it at the Xenakis Festival in Bonn. Later Xenakis wrote two works for him, “Epicycles” for cello & ensemble and “Roscobek” for cello & double bass. He has worked with György Ligeti, giving the world premiere of his solo cello sonata; with Henri Pousseur, giving the world premiere of “Racine 19”, a work based on a 19-note scale and dedicated to him; and with Luciano Berio, giving the UK premiere of his work for cello and orchestra, “Il Ritorno degli Snovidenia”. After the performance, Berio wrote to Rohan: “Your performance of “Ritorno” is splendid, but besides “Ritorno”, your sound, your perfect intonation, your phrasing and bowing technique make you a great performer of any music”. As a result, Berio wrote “Sequenza XIV” for Rohan. This wonderful piece incorporates in a unique way the rhythms of the Kandyan drum of Sri Lanka, an instrument which Rohan has himself played since his childhood in Sri Lanka.

For many years Rohan was cellist of the Arditti String Quartet. A large number of new works were written for and premiered and recorded by them. Among the many composers they worked personally with are Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachnmann, György Ligeti, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. Further information about works written for the Arditti Quartet, and their discography, during the years Rohan was their cellist (1977 – 2005) can be found on the Arditti Quartet website,. Whilst with the Arditti Quartet, they were awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for lifetime achievement and a Grammy Award for their recording of works by Elliott Carter, including his Sonata for cello and piano and his work ‘Figment’ for solo cello.

At the end of November 2005, Rohan left the Arditti Quartet in order to work with other artists, composers and friends around the world, bringing together music from a range of musical periods, both eastern and western, classical and contemporary, composed and improvised. In addition to his concert recitals, he has students coming from different parts of the world particularly, but not only, to study some of the works written for him, as well as other works with which he is especially associated. He continues to teach and give master classes internationally. Many works have been written for him as soloist or in combination with other artists, thus enriching the cello repertoire considerably. He is a founder member of the Little Missenden Festival and a patron of soundfestival, Scotland.

Rohan improvises with many other artists including his drummer/percussionist son Suren. In December 2004, Rohan was awarded an honorary D. Litt. from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and in December 2005, he was awarded the Deshamaniya, the national honour of Sri Lanka. In 2016 he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Sri Lanka Foundation in Los Angeles. His recently published book “Conversations” between Rohan and Joachim Steinheuer from Heidelberg University, has been described by Rajesh Mehta as “a treasure trove of musical jewels” and is available from the German publisher, and from Amazon. For further biographical details, reviews, discography and repertoire see website:

© 2020 Rohan de Saram

Further Claudio recordings made Live at the Wigmore Hall:

CB6004-2 Saram in Concert Vol. 1

CB6005-2 Saram in Concert Vol. 2

Review: I – Music Web International (Dec 20)

Rohan de Saram’s recording career goes back at least to the 70s and his concert giving to the late 1950s. I cannot be sure if this is his first recording of the suites, there are suggestions that he made a full set earlier in his career. However, what matters is this current set. The first thing to say is that he goes for broader tempi than, for example, János Starker, but de Saram is by no means the only performer to take as long as 2½ hours. He plays all the repeats, as one would expect and, if it matters to you, he plays at modern pitch A=440Hz.

All recordings of these unique compositions must be labours of love because, with the possible exception of the first suite, they are all extremely difficult to perform. Two suites, the fifth and the sixth, pose special problems. The fifth requires scordatura tuning for the A string, and the sixth was probably written for a smaller version of the cello, one with five strings instead of four. In fact, no one knows exactly what instrument was intended by the composer for the entire set and there is not only a lot of speculation but also several recordings “proving” how well some of the alternatives can be used. I remember Sigiswald Kuijken talking about the use of a shoulder cello, a violoncello da spalla, as a viable option and proceeding to play a demonstration of his thesis with the instrument slung around his neck and shoulders like a modern guitar and played with an up-and-down motion of the bow. De Saram, in common with most, uses a normal cello throughout.

For the collector there are many alternatives to this set, even on Blu-ray there is one, no less a cellist than Pierre Fournier, whose 1961 set was issued in a handsome box of 2 CDs and one BDA in 2019. The recording there scarcely shows its age save for the presence of some faint tape noise. The Claudio issue is free of that at least. Beyond Blu-ray there are the famous sets by János Starker, an earlier one from Fournier, from Paul Tortelier, Rostropovich, Isserlis, Casals, you name the cellist and they have probably done it, excepting Jacqueline du Pré it would seem – invitation for someone to disagree with references!

The presence of alternatives is not to suggest a “best set” is even possible. Such comparisons are nonsense I feel. All that matters is, might you like this one? De Saram is a fine player still and his playing has a sense of absorption in these remarkable scores. The scores have no guidance as to tempi, indeed no manuscript in Bach’s hand has ever been found, just copies. The best guidance is the movement names, giguesarabande etc., from which can be judged the style, tempo and rhythm expected. De Saram goes into much of this in his extensive notes. No two performances sound the same, even from the same cellist, so in a sense this is simply a record, in the archival sense, of what Rohan de Saram felt like doing on these particular days. This is certainly as valid as any other, provided the notes are played correctly, which of course they are, and that one can hear clearly what he is playing. The latter was reasonably possible even in the earliest recordings but in the well-nigh perfect sound Claudio always seems to record one misses nothing. The only unwanted sounds were from the generous acoustic of St Bartholomew’s when rapid passages were accompanied by many faint reflections to give a distant chattering effect. I stress this is faint and maybe you would not even notice.

So, is this one worth adding to the collection? I think it is, if only because it is another view to add to however many others one has collected over the years. Personally, I’m rather attached to the Starker because I bought one of his LPs (Nos.3 and 6) on now ancient Saga vinyl back in the early 60s and was bowled over. Anyone new to the suites could be equally bowled over by de Saram. Go for it. © Dave Billinge.

Review: II – Music Web International (Jan 21)

These three CDs contain dramatic, deeply-felt, imaginative and justifiably personal accounts of all six of Bach’s Suites for solo cello – which (as far as we know) he wrote between 1717 and 1723 while serving as Kapellmeister at Köthen.

Each is structured as a conventional Baroque musical suite. The Prelude is followed by five Baroque dance movements… allemandecourantesarabande, two minuets, two bourréesor two gavottes, and a final gigue. Intense and highly demanding to play, these most profound of solo musical achievements were little known and performed until Casals revived them early in the last century.

It could be asked whether there is room for another interpretation of the Bach Cello Suites. British-born (in 1939) Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram, answers ‘Yes’.

His playing is – as one expects – mature, considered, confident, compelling and revealing. From the familiar first few notes of BWV 1007, the G major [CD.1 tr.1], one is aware of de Saram’s determination to communicate with, involve and respect his listeners. There are no gimmicks to catch our attention. These wonderful works need no props. Yet there is a delightful freshness and spontaneity throughout.

Phrasing is intelligent, dynamics handled with care – not thrust on us in this recording’s close and slightly (but appropriately) reverberant acoustic. Cellists can have two underlying purposes in mind when approaching the six Suites. They can play the music as though it had been carved from stone – both the mould and the sculpture having always existed. Or they can project their experience, interpretation, emotion onto the Suites.

In this recording de Saram achieves something special by blending the two approaches. He plays with the assumption that we are more than casually familiar with these monumental works and that we are listening out of some deep and long-standing motivation and attachment… the gentle yet controlled variation in tempi in the Sarabande of BWV 1009, the C major [CD.1 tr.16], for instance, speaks of the music itself, and how it needs to evolve… not of any facet of performance. Similarly de Saram exposes the continuity and integrity of the music; the Prelude of the same Suite seems to flow and ripple out of itself – the lines and scordatura are not forced as if to emphasise how successful the player is in his modern ‘reading’ of cello technique.

Yet there is nothing evasive nor insubstantial or spuriously ethereal, nor merely evocative or self-indulgently impressionistic, in de Saram’s approach. It is strangely, but unmistakably, down-to-earth. Handy. Serviceable. At the same time expressive and markedly unambiguous. Neither ‘punchy’ nor overplayed. De Saram lets the music work.

So by his technique and personalisation we do sense that it is music which has always existed.

These are interpretations which are not built on surprise or novelty. That would be crass. Rather, de Saram (whose first recorded versions these may well be, although extracts by the cellist and others do appear in compilation on First Hand Records 11) uses a significant range of expressiveness; there is variety; his playing is as broad and multi-faceted as it is concentrated. In other words, it keeps your attention. Although you appreciate the depth of de Saram’s playing and insight, you are also aware of why the cellist wants gently to share the greatness of Bach’s writing.

The achievement, in sum, of these excellent accounts by de Saram is the balance he achieves between a colourful, personal and individual interpretation of Bach’s timeless works – on the one hand. And authority, accessibility and generosity on the other. Absent are both self-indulgence and insipidness in equal measure.

This review evaluates the High Definition (192kHz/24 bit) issue on three CDs. Note that there is also a Blu-Ray version available; it has been reviewed on MusicWeb (see below). The ‘fold-out’ CD case only secures CDs 1 and 2, the third CD (which contains the sixth Suite) just sits in the well left by the other two discs, which are properly secured at their centres.

Although this music will probably be familiar to anyone attracted to this CD, the five pages in the slim booklet are a bit of a disappointment. There are only brief descriptions of the characteristics of the aforementioned dance movements in the context of Bach’s suites, and a biography of de Saram. No details of his instrument – although Dave Billinge in the earlier review refers to the pitch used and the fact that de Saram observes all the repeats. To this should be added that the cello sound is sumptuous, full, woody and extremely satisfying; although, one imagines, richer than Bach would have known.

If you are not already a lover of this music, the performances here are likely to convince you of its beauty and profundity within a few minutes thanks to de Saram’s thoughtful and accomplished playing. If you are, then these make more than worthy additions to any collection.

© 2021 Mark Sealey.

**MWI Review Jan 2021

Previous review (BD-A): Dave Billinge.
** MWI Review Dec 2020