To record Bach Cello Suites today – Matthieu Fontana

Hello, Matthieu. After a long period of study, you just started recording the Bach Suites. This is quite something, if we think of all the cellists who have done it before. Could you tell us what brought you to do it yourself ?

It is a very ambitious project indeed. I have obviously listened to dozens of beautiful recordings of the Suites. But just as is the case for many cellists, this is my daily bread, and the richness of this music is so inexhaustible that I thought, with all due modesty, that I would give it a try. I met a sound engineer who made this dream a reality; she produced the recording and even found this venue with a great acoustics at the Abbaye de Port Royal des Champs.

You thought a lot about the score. How would you define your approach to this music ?

It is a result of several years of research, with important support from Anner Bylsma. His interpretation, as well as our almost philosophical conversations about the music and our opinions about the manuscript, inspired me a lot, and I am very grateful for that.
A big part of my work consisted of insisting on some specific characteristics of Bach’s music : firstly, the complex counterpoint although the piece is composed for a melodic instrument. Secondly, the bowing’s articulations, which are so intimately related to the rethorics, so that the musical ideas can be sculpted and thus alive. Then the dance, which is the central element of the Suites, as a direct link to folk traditions and body language.
As for the rethorics, following the advice of Anner Bylsma, for whom Bach was a bow strategist, I studied very carefully the manuscript of his wife Maria Magdalena. I do know that the manuscript from the master’s hand hasnt been preserved, but Maria Magdalena was immersed in the musical culture of her times, and what she wrote from her husband’s work is to me totally reliable. I am thus convinced that the bowings she writes correspond to the great master’s intentions, and that they match the way he conceived the interpretation of the Suites.
As an example, in the 4th line of the first Suite’s Courante, the bowing of the beginning of first phrase (D, E, D, F) is not the same as the one from the Suite (D, E, D, G, D, E, D, A, etc…). It implies a change in the rhythm : with the same pattern, Bach expresses different things that you don’t convey if you use the same bowing all the time.

Furthermore, as Romain Garioud so correctly pointed out, the analysis of the 5th Suite’s score, transcribed for lute by Bach himself, reveals a narrow connection with the French school style.The articulations evoke François Couperin, whom Bach admired a lot. Free will prevails and leaves room to adapt slurs with relative freedom of interpretation.
It is also in meticulously scrutinizing the score that we can discover hidden rhythms in the 5th Suite fugue. Intellectualizing it too much would lead to a too-cerebral interpretation that might cut us off from the audience.
Personally, just like the other movements of the Suite, this fugue makes me want to dance, and I want to communicate this feeling to the audience. Like Jean-Guilhen Queyras wisely said: « Cello is a living language ». When I practice the Suites, I’m always dancing so that I find the appropriate tempo, and not only in the Gavottes, Menuets and Sarabandes.
As for the Gigues, they have a more virtuoso side. When you examine the manuscript, you can find that some rhythmical patterns are similar in terms of harmony, but not in terms of phrasing. Or that you never retake the bow in a same phrase, just as cellists from the Italian school practiced in Bach’s time.
The bow is played as it comes, without having to retake it on a strong beat. This creates both technical and musical difficulties that you have to overcome if you want to serve Bach’s musical language.

It is indeed necessary to take the Italian cello school into account since viol still prevailed in France and England, for instance. You seem to have worked a lot on the repertoire of this period.

I have played a lot of repertoire anterior or contemporary to Bach. Italian repertoire (Gabrielli, dall’Abaco), but German as well (Schutz, Scheidt, Homilius, J.G.Muthel, etc..) because I believe it is indispensable to know the repertoire of the period well in order to play the Suites.
For instance, it is important to know that in Protestant churches, people sang chorales, whose themes and patterns, which the public recognized, were to be found symbolically used in the composer’s works.

So far, you are speaking about rethorics and melody. What can be said about the harmonic dimension of the interpretation of the Suites ?

One should not forget that, even if it was written for one instrument, harmony plays a fundamental role here. To underline it, one ought not give the same importance to every note. Some have to sound more than others, so you have to measure your energy according to these parameters.
In an Allemande, you have to pay attention that the harmony is brought out behind the melody. Bach’s language is essentially orchestral: thus, in the Courante of the first Suite, one voice starts with the upbeat and first beat (G, G), and then a second voice, which in an orchestra could be the viola, answers (D, G). The timbre of those two voices shouldn’t be exactly the same.
Beyond counterpoint, phrasing, rethorics, each bar brings something different, which adds complexity and richness to the music.
From this point of view, the Cello Suites can be compared to some Flemish paintings. I’m thinking in particular of the « Flemish Proverbs » by Brueghel. If you watch it with distance, it is beautiful; then the closer you get, the more details you discover, each of which have a sense since the artist aims to express more than a hundred proverbs embraced in one painting like a symphony.
For the same reason, we can speak of symphonic writing in the Suites, where timbres change from bar to bar, and it would certainly be easy to orchestrate them.
Just like a conductor, the performer is led to explore the complexity of the composer’s writing, and to bring out different dynamics, timbres and phrasing according to what he plays.

A word on the instrument you are playing ?

I play a really good cello set up with raw gut strings, without endpin. The bow is a copy of an 18th century bow that provides this peculiar multiform sound: sometimes rich in harmonics, sometimes soft and smooth, sometimes a bit harsh… but that brings me back to the idea of sound I have in mind, which I developed in inquiring about the timbre of the instruments of this period (organ registers, baroque oboes, traversos and brass…).

What about intonation ?

To speak about intonation might be a bit strange! We should remind ourselves that each period, each culture has its own intonation system. In western countries, we too often have the reflex of universalism..intonation is a relative concept !
I studied intonation, which is complex to « hear », with David Simpson from the Arts Florissants. He eruditely taught me the different temperaments in use in the 17th and 18th centuries (in particular Werckmeister III and Tartini-Valotti). I also accompanied wind instruments, which have different intonation systems because of the way they are made.
Of course cello can’t play in as accurate temperament as the harpsichord can, but it gave me the possibility to conceive different perspectives of harmonic colours.

All this proves your interpretation to be the result of long-term reflection and scrupulous analysis…

Reflection inspired by a lot of admirable research, like the work of Gilles Cantagrel to better understand Bach’s day to day life through his letters and his family’s letters.
Many perspectives were given to me by teachers and researchers in history and in the political and social sciences, to refine my time representation within the pieces (I would suggest « historical interpretation » or « interpretation of the period ») and the one a performer in the 18th century could have had. Then taking a bit of distance with all of this research, I tried to sincerely express what was deeply implanted in me, to tell the audience a story, to try to nourish its imagination. I didn’t aim to reach a utopic perfection. This doesn’t mean I will play the same way in ten years, since the richness of the music, again, is so inexhaustible. This recording today is just like a picture of a stage of my reflection.

The result is beautiful, bravo. But now you have to distribute this recording, which is not easy in these times where the cd industry has to compete with the emergence of new technologies. All the more because, despite your young age and great talent, you are not yet recognized as a star by the medias.

Being a star never interested me; I haven’t been brought up like this, and this is why I didn’t hesitate to isolate myself for more than a year to devote myself to interior research.
We are indeed living in difficult times, but beyond the CD crisis, it is culture which is being sacrificed on the altar of financial austerity. So this is a period where musicians have to be united, to encourage each other, to take distance from this selfish protection reflex and not be afraid to build original projects so that they may avoid the hardening of artistic creation….
Furthermore, and I don’t mean here to be polemical, I see that lots of recording producers are compelled to focus on marketing of musicians, without taking care to prioritize the artistic quality of whatever they are producing. It proves to be hard to discuss musical research with them. Media exposure is alas the main criterium, and the limits of this approach make it difficult to explain what one tried to express in a new interpretation.
However, I’m going to use Internet, which offers to artists who self-produce their recordings great possibilities of distribution. In March 2011, websites such as iTunes, Amazon, and will distribute this recording, and less traditionnal platforms will also distribute a few free tracks on legal P2P webs.
Then I will have some copies made to sell in shops and at concerts.

Michel Oriano (Association Française du Violoncelle)
Translated from french by Abigail Kniffin and Hannelore Guittet

Photographies: François Sechet 2011