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Countdown to JS Bach’s birthday: cellist RACHEL MERCER, 4/5

Countdown to JS Bach’s birthday: cellist RACHEL MERCER, 4/5 featured image

Cover photo: David Leyes


Bach’s birthdate changed when he was 15 years old. We either observe it on March 21 (on the Gregorian calendar, which we observe today) or March 31 (on the Julian calendar, which Protestant Germany observed up until 1700). Since we’re on the Gregorian calendar, we’re going to observe his birthday on March 21, a popular option as it also coincides with the Spring equinox, a very pleasant time of year. I spoke with several musicians about their approach to Bach. I asked them why his music is rarely programmed in piano recitals, the issue of harpsichord vs. piano, and approaching his music as a modern or Barque string player. All had fascinating perspectives to offer on this great master.

Today, I’m speaking with Rachel Mercer, cellist, of several groups: Mercer-Park Duo; AYR Trio; Ensemble Made In Canada; and Principal Cello, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Ottawa.

Q: I’ve noticed when I attend solo piano recitals, I almost never see Bach programmed. How about with cello – how often do you notice performances of the suites? And do you program them in your own concerts?
A: These days, as the levels of technique and stamina expected of performers continue to rise, it seems almost normal that great cellists offer a cycle, sometimes even in one day, sometimes even in one non-stop concert! It’s such a mammoth undertaking; what it asks of the player physically, but especially mentally. I’ve done the cycle a couple of times to start to feel suites as one larger work, to assume the language and feel the place of each Suite in relation to the others. And hearing a complete cycle allows the listener to be immersed in the rich sound of the cello through the colours of each key in each movement. In a regular concert, it becomes an element of contrast, usually becoming the “Baroque”, solo, or “lighter” piece. In the end, I believe in and try to program them as much as possible in any format! They are music meant to be shared and to grow and evolve with each performer.

Q: Tell us about your personal relationship with Bach’s music.
A: This music has been a part of my life from when it first appeared in the early Suzuki books when I was five or six. By 20 I had studied all of them and once I was finished with school and touring with a string quartet, playing the suites just for myself was a way to stay connected to the basic resonance and sound of the cello. I have been extremely lucky to play on some wonderful instruments and playing Bach is the first thing I do on a new cello, to get acquainted with its unique sound in an unforced and natural way. Sometimes it becomes almost a meditative activity; as my motions during playing the suites become rounded and natural and the music flows, my body becomes more open and relaxed as if I’m having a great massage! Performing them is a very different experience. It’s tricky to turn around and try to project that very intimate and inward connection out to the audience. I guess I just try to draw the listener in and hope they experience this connection.

Q: What lead you to record them?
It was a combination of being lucky enough to have the loan of the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius from the Canada Council for the Arts Instrument Bank and having the opportunity to play the suites more frequently in concert. I felt it was a moment I had to take advantage of and it was a very personal undertaking, creating a record of where I was at the time. There are so many incredible recordings out there and I would never dream of comparing mine with them, but again, this music is meant to be shared and I felt I could reach out enough to make this offering.

Q: Is it just me, or did Yo-Yo Ma’s two recordings of the Bach Cello Suites (1983 and 1997) cause a bit of a revival in this work?
Being in my classical world bubble I don’t have a great sense of whether there was a revival, but he definitely is an artist that we pay attention to and who is capable of making us think in new ways. I always think of Yo-Yo Ma as the universal musician – when listening to him I never get the sense that he is playing the cello, or a string instrument – somehow he makes us think even beyond the music and connects to people in a more universal way. So if anyone can connect music to people and draw in more listeners, it’s him!

Q: Purists prefer Bach on period instruments, without anachronistic touches like fluctuation of tempo or romantic-sounding vibrato. What’s your take on playing Bach on a non-period instrument?
I’d love to experiment more myself with period instruments and playing just to understand better what the tools were like at the time, but I also love the possibilities of the modern set up. That said, when I listen to the suites, I tend to prefer the period style recordings, or at least the ones that value the dance feel of the music over any kind of sustained romanticism. In a way those recordings allow me to hear the music more directly, without the personality of the cellist being as obviously at the front. But that can change daily! I am inspired by and learn from everything and it’s fascinating to see how we human beings are capable of arriving at such different interpretations!

Rachel’s “Suites for Solo Cello” is available at the label’s site at or her own site at It is also available on iTunes and Amazon. This album was recorded on the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius Cello from the Canada Council for the Arts Instrument Bank

Tomorrow: pianist Angela Hewitt.
Pianist James Anagnoson:
Baroque violinist/violist Kathleen Kajioka:
Harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger:

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