NOTE: This piece is my interpretation of the “translation” assignment from the 2019 “Reality Writes” project from The Literal Challenge. My interpretation was a bit loose.
Pay attention to it. There’s almost no use of extended positions (that’s when you reach down toward the bridge and play far down on the fingerboard (which is technically playing ‘high’ because the notes are higher)). There are almost no double-stops (that’s chords to you guitarists). The melody isn’t terribly sophisticated.
And yet… it’s the measure of a cellist’s skill, of whether they play with emotion or are simply good ‘technical’ players. It’s a required part of the repertoire for every conservatory audition, in every country in the world. If you can’t manage a credible Prelude, you don’t get past round one.
Jacqueline du Pré played it with every bit of her depression infusing the notes. Ophélie Gaillard plays it with warmth and wisdom and a sort of bemusement that makes it as French as she is, for all Bach was German. Rostropovich, Casals – they each had their own spin as well.
But when Ma plays it, especially in his studio recording, you can hear what’s underneath the music. Listen carefully. You can tell when his fingers meet the ebony of the fingerboard beneath the strings, but you can also detect the faint ring when his fingers leave the strings. Good cellists don’t rely on their thumbs – a practice exercise is to play études without using your thumb at all – but you can hear his thumb contact the saddle of the cello when he does move into extended positions. And you can hear his breath.
If you know the piece, you can discern when Ma’s pitch is a little off (it’s the beauty of live performance – the reality and impact often lie in the flaws), when he doesn’t attack the strings in quite the right way. His cello has a subtle burr note in the lower registers.
Look carefully. When the bow is really raspy you can see traces of rosin fly off it. You can see the muscle control Ma has, in the way an up bow (when you push the bow) has the same volume and strength as the easier down bow (when you pull).
Bach. Unaccompanied. Deceptively simple.