SEE AT BOTTOM: GEORGE NEIKRUG’S EXTENSIVE COMMENTS ON PLAYING THE BACH SIX SUITES – WRITTEN IN 1980.
The Boston Globe's 1979 review of George Neikrug’s live performance of the Bach Six Suites – "You hear the severe beauty of much of the music... It was anything but just-playing-the-notes... a sense of histrionic values is essential, and in this instance, with the Bach Cello Suites, they worked to impressive effect. They convinced."
Richard Buell, The Boston Globe
"George Neikrug has been, for many years, a respected colleague and musician, as well as a good friend. I regard him as a great artist -- a term not lightly used by a fellow professional. His superb, absolute command of the instrument, the probing depth of his musical perception, his contagious joy in communicating his affection for music; all combine in bringing to life whatever music he plays."
-- Isaac Stern
George Neikrug's recordings of the Bach Suites are live and unedited performances demonstrating great playing of unusual clarity, facility and tonal grandeur. They are different and more intense than any other recording of the Bach Suites available. Every professional or amateur cellist will benefit form listening closely to Neikrug’s mastery. And the general public will experience a new emotional depth not heard before. Neikrug's performance of the 5th Suite and 6th Suite are simply the best ever recorded!
Mr. Neikrug, a consummate cello virtuoso, is considered by many of his colleagues to be the greatest living string pedagogue. Born in New York, George Neikrug was a pupil of the legendary Emanuel Feuermann and is probably the only remaining student who is still concertizing. In 1943, he met the well-known pedagogue D.C. Dounis, whose revolutionary approach to the problems of string playing and teaching influenced him to completely revamp his playing and create the unique style he has retained to this day. This association lasted for a period of fifteen years, and Neikrug felt such a debt to Dounis for all the knowledge and skills he had learned that he resolved to devote his life to teaching at schools, such as Boston University, and giving master classes all over the world.
Since Neikrug's New York debut in 1947, he has held principal positions with the Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras. He was also principal cellist of the Paramount Pictures Recording Orchestra and the Columbia Recording Orchestra, which recorded the historic series of performances by Igor Stravinsky and Bruno Walter, who called Neikrug a "genuine musician and a real virtuoso of the cello."
In 1960, Leopold Stokowski asked Neikrug to perform Bloch's Schelomo with him and the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall, with a recording for United Artists to follow. After this performance, Stokowski sent him an autographed photo with the inscription "for George Neikrug's Schelomo -- unforgettable." In 1979, Neikrug performed all six Bach solo suites in one concert at Lincoln Center. In an enthusiastic review of this concert, John Rockwell of The New York Times concluded, "there was a beauty that was almost painful. We wish Mr. Neikrug would play all the violin suites for us."
Mr. Neikrug has appeared as a soloist with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski and Yehudi Menuhin, who stated, "I was most impressed with his profound and accurate understanding of his instrument, as well as string playing in general. He is a first-rate musician, and I cannot recommend him too highly." His recording of Bloch's "Schelomo" with Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air was recently re-released on the EMI label. In addition, Sony has recently released his recording of a duet by Mozart for cello, baritone and orchestra with George London, baritone, and the Columbia Symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter.
In 1962, Mr. Neikrug accepted a teaching position at the Hochschüle in Frankfurt, Germany, as a Fulbright Professor sponsored by Ernst Toch and Bruno Walter. He has held teaching positions at the Detmold Hochschule in Germany, Oberlin College, and the University of Texas at Austin before joining the faculty at Boston University School for the Arts in 1971. He was selected to receive the 1995 "Artist Teacher Award" from the American String Teachers Association. In 1996, he was invited by Janos Starker and the University of Indiana to receive the "Chevalier du Violoncelle" award for outstanding lifetime achievement on the cello. Many of his students are in major symphony orchestras all over the world, including some in principal positions and teaching at major universities.
GEORGE NEIKRUG’S COMMENTS ON PLAYING THE BACH SIX SUITES:
When one performs all six Bach Cello Suites in sequence, there is a feeling of taking part in a logical development from the simple to the complex, similar to that of a human being from birth to maturity. The variety of musical ideas is enormous, and the emotions and aesthetic concepts expressed in the music span the gamut of human creativity. To the player, a successful performance of the Suites can be exhilarating and draining in a way that cannot be compared to any other musical experience.
The problems involved in the preparation for such a performance are huge and touch on many areas: The technical, historical, aesthetic and emotional. What makes this task particularly awesome is the fact that one has to face it entirely alone, with no other colleagues or friends on the stage and the full responsibility for the performance rests on one’s own resources.
The worries first begin to surface when one announces to family and friends that the cellist intends to perform the six Bach Cello Suites in a single concert. Immediately the advice will range from taking of a few aspirin and “maybe it will go away” to a consultation with the family doctor or psychiatrist or perhaps even a short sabbatical.
The music of the Suites has an economy of expression that is unique. The linear writing is entirely different from those of his contemporaries. It suggests many different voices and harmonies. One can hear an independent bass line plus several other contrapuntal lines moving independently and then at times coming together in unison. There are moments when a single melody appears with a purely harmonic background and then there are other moments of gigantic chordal power, reminiscent of the composer’s grandiose organ works. Certainly the modern player is far better equipped to perform this music – what with all the numerous advances that have been made in the technique of playing the cello tonally, mechanically and expressively in over two hundred years – than a seventeenth or eighteenth century performer, no matter how talented he may have been.
How then do we establish a balance between the historically appropriate stylistic aspects of performance and the demands of an emotional and intellectual expression that makes the music come alive to a contemporary audience? This is the important point I am trying to make about the playing of the Bach Suites. To accomplish this believability presents many problems of interpretation. The musician must have the wide spectrum of dynamics, color and phrasing that is suitable for our contemporary concert halls and public, and yet he must be able to additionally convey the impression of stylistic truth. I believe very much that the following represents a few of the specific problems the performer must solve.
First, there is a rhythmic dilemma. The performer must have rhythmic freedom and still give the impression of rhythmic discipline. The Bach Suites encompasses music that seems to be boiled down to the basic elements. The very notes suggest so much more than we see actually written. In order to give the impression of different voices plus an independent bass line one has to lean on certain notes so as to give them a feeling of continuing sustained sound while the new voice appears – the dangers of rhythmic distortion being always present. The success of this kind of contrapuntal linear playing depends on the technical skills of the player which brings us to the question of how manually difficult the Bach Suites are. Yes, they are very difficult but not in a way that is obvious to the non-professional, listening audience. The music is written in the first four positions of the cello – with the exception of the Sixth Suite, which was written in a wider range for the viola pomposa, an instrument with five stings (with the added E string), so that the player did not have to use the higher positions of the instrument. Thus the player has no great feats of shifting or manual dexterity of a virtuoso nature to contend with, and despite this, the music is difficult, as is obvious from some of the performances we hear from otherwise competent instrumentalists whose skills seem to deteriorate somewhat when they present a Bach solo work in the course of a recital program. The reasons for this are the following: Because the music is constantly changing from one string to another, tone production will suffer unless one is a master of the special technique of string changing and can create the illusion that one is always playing on one string. If this special skill has not been fully mastered the player will become more uncomfortable with each bar, feeling that his instrument is not responding properly, and proceed to tighten his muscles and begin to force his tone. In the left hand a similar situation exists. Due to the confining feeling of not being able to dwell on one string and shift up and down, which can serve to relax the hand, the player will tend to “freeze up” and consequently stiffen his hand. Such feelings can distract the performer from the all-important aspects of the interpretive task at hand and the music is bound to suffer accordingly. Audiences quickly pick up such signs of physical discomfort in a performer and their concentration will be interrupted. These are not the sort of dazzling skills that are apt to delight the public; but when absent, the performer will be seen as being in a losing struggle with his instrument.
The actual musical problems involved with the linear writing of the Bach Suites come from the way the notes of the music look in the printed text. This can be compared to the experience one has when looking at some impressionist paintings. At first one sees only a huge blur; however, on closer examination one begins to see previously hidden shapes that come into proper focus with increasing clarity. To compare this with similar musical examples, if one looks at some of the Preludes such as those of the first, third, fourth, and sixth Suites, there appears to be a blur of repetitive eighth or sixteenth notes in apparent perpetual motion. But, on further, deeper study, similar to the paintings, a myriad of little shapes begin to take form, like the pieces of a gigantic three dimension jig-saw puzzle. After realizing the existence of all these pieces of various shapes and duration, the performer must solve their relationships to each other. The most difficult task is that of musical punctuation, to objectively see the divisions in the music itself, similar to the punctuation, commas, periods, etc., that are essential to language if it is to become comprehensible. One is so influenced by what one has frequently heard or played that it is difficult to perceive the tiniest and most logical phrasing. We know how the original meaning of a spoken sentence can be altered or distorted by a single false inflection. Consider the effect of the question mark of the speaker in this example…”President Carter announced today that the economic situation looks considerably brighter?”
When one thinks back on the conflicting advice he has received on the “proper” interpretation of the Bach Suites he must conclude that each point of view contains some valid points to be considered. It is really a question of achieving a series of balances between opposing elements – freedom versus discipline, emotion versus intellect and the historical versus the contemporary. Finally, one has to make all these compromises and in the end still convey conviction.
In conclusion, perhaps a few words should be said about how it actually feels like when one performs all the Suites in a single concert. I have tried to play the first three Suites followed by a dinner break of ninety minutes, and then continuing with the last three. This experience feels more like two consecutive concerts, while both the performer and the audience have difficulty in resuming the momentum and concentration that is necessary. The performer undergoes the usual let-down following a complete recital and it is a great strain to muster all of one’s powers for the even more demanding second part. This is difficult enough even after the customary fifteen-minute interval taken in our concert. Then one is suddenly faced with the massive fourth and fifth Suites, with the Prelude to the fifth being so powerful that the player has to restrain himself from almost sawing the cello in half! If that were not enough, what comes as the final dessert to this gargantuan meal but the over-treacherous Sixth Suite, where one is suddenly all over the high thumb positions of the cello in an effort to compensate for the missing E string (of the original instrument intended by the composer) – an area of the cello that has been virtually forgotten during the past ninety minutes of playing. It is as if the player’s supreme powers were waiting to be tested at the very end – comparable only to the awesome final ascent to the summit of Mount Everest.
Just like many other aspects in life, the greatest rewards may carry the most risks. If one relishes a challenge, there is nothing that can really compare with a performance of the complete Bach Suites to test a cellist’s powers.