Listen Well

Pau Casals 05
Pau Casals
 February in Western Washington is a good time to learn to appreciate subtleties. For the most part, one grey day follows another. It can be a dark time unless one learns to pay attention and rejoice in small blessings: the slow lengthening of the days from week to week as spring approaches, the few brave sprigs of green that will become early crocuses and daffodils, a quick shaft of sunshine breaking through an otherwise dreary day.

I’ve been enjoying another exercise in the appreciation of subtleties as well: recently I’ve been really into (OK, make that obsessed with–it’s what I do, after all) Bach’s cello suites. I’d been in something of a classical music phase in general, and then a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing the Goat Rodeo Sessions’ live broadcast to movie theaters around the country. At the end, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile played a few Bach pieces as one of the encores for the concert, which inspired me to seek out more Bach cello music, which led me to the full suites.

I first picked up what may be the definitive recording of Bach’s cello suites: the recordings made by Pablo (or Pau, in Catalan) Casals back in the late 1930s. I listened to them non-stop for days at a time, over and over, several times through over the course of a work day. I became particularly enamored of the Prelude from Cello Suite #6 (BMV 1012 for the music geeks out there). One evening a few weeks ago, I sat searching YouTube for every version I could find, listening to the differences and similarities. Partly based on that evening of exploration, I ordered a used copy of Mstislav Rostropovich’s recording of the suites. I imagine other versions will follow eventually.

RIAN archive 6848 Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich
I’ve been going back and forth between these two cellists, listening to the suites again and again. Bear in mind that I am no music scholar, so any opinions and observations here are those of an ignorant listener.

Casals may always be my favorite: his playing is gutsy, gritty, emotionally raw, at times possessing perhaps more fire than grace. As he plays, I am aware too of the physical aspects of the music: the weight of his hand on the bow, the drag of the bow on the strings.

I absolutely love Casals’ playing. But I am enjoying Rostropovich’s take as well. He is a master of dynamics: the cello whispers, shouts, questions, answers, builds from gentle stirrings to glorious crescendos, carrying you along for the ride. I’m also more aware of his variations in tempo: the fast pieces skitter along giddily, light on their feet; the slower pieces are smoothly low-bowed, sedate or solemn, depending on the key.

They play the same notes. The same pieces. But they tell different stories. To me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of classical music: how the musicians and conductors are able to work within a relatively constrained framework, and yet bring out something fresh and different. It asks something of you as the listener as well: attention to detail, appreciation for nuance, for slight casts of mood and feeling, for a different touch on the instrument. It is relaxingly familiar, yet always new.

As I put these thoughts together as I prepare for another Lent, it strikes me that in some ways, the church year is also like a well known piece of music. Every year, we pass through the same seasons; every three years, a cycle of readings. There is a comfortingly familiar, ever-present underlying structure, year after year. Every year we travel through the expectation of Advent to the joy of Christmas, through patches of “ordinary” time, wander the desert of Lent to the wonder of Easter, experience the call of Pentecost. We hear the same Scriptures again and again, contemplate the same message.

But every year is a new performance. Every year speaks to us a little differently, if we only have ears to hear.

Original composition date: February 21, 2012

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