The Prelude begins with what is perhaps the most famous phrase in the cello repertoire. Everybody knows this opening. So why do I suggest that people should slur it differently?
Well, firstly it’s very common to hear it played with long slurs, 4 or 8 notes to a bow. People have been playing it like that ever since Casals first reintroduced these suites to the performing repertoire. These are the smooth performances that I referred to in the Overview, and of course they sound beautiful. Performances like these have made people fall in love with this piece so they can’t be wrong.
But I don’t believe it’s what Bach wrote or intended. None of the original sources have these long slurs. They have one short slur.
As you can see, it’s not clear exactly where this short slur goes, but nowadays many cellists slur the first three notes as indicated in Wenzinger’s 1950 Bärenreiter edition. (If you slur two or four notes it means that every other phrase will come upside down.) And you can make a nice consistent interpretation of the first half of the movement where you slur the first three notes whenever they occur as a rising arpeggio. In this way, the rising arpeggio becomes the foreground and the rest of the bar becomes the background.
But I like a different solution. Look again at the first source above, Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript. The slur is on the other motif in the bar, the falling and rising 2nd. If you slur the third, fourth and fifth notes of the bar, this motif becomes the foreground. And once again you can make a consistent interpretation throughout the first half of the movement, but now it makes more sense in bar 11, and more importantly you are setting up this motif for the important rôle it plays in the rest of the suite.
I realise I don’t have much evidence for this point of view. After the first bar Anna Magdalena only starts the slur on the third note in one other bar (bar 11) and all the other sources start the slur from the first or second note. But when I started playing it this way, it suddenly sounded more natural than ever before. You can hear how it sounds in my video performance.
The second half of the Prelude is almost a separate piece with very few slurs apart from the falling scales. (Once again, you sometimes hear smooth performances where all the open strings are slurred in during the bariolage in bars 31-38, but that’s not in any of the sources.)
Technical tips for bass players – Contact point
In the opening, you need to get every note to sound with a good tone. The string length changes hugely between the open G string and the top notes. You have to find the right contact point for the bow on the string, playing the open string near the end of the fingerboard and then moving to the bridge for the top notes. The open string needs much less bow than the notes around it, so you have to zig-zag the bow through it. (See my post on the Sarabande for more on this technique.)
In the bariolage it’s a challenge playing all the recurring As and Ds on the bass because for us they are harmonics, not open strings. I like to keep the string crossings in, so I start in bar 31 by simultaneously playing a harmonic A and a stopped D with the thumb at the neck. (See page 45 of my book on thumb position.) A couple of bars later you have to switch to the other harmonic A, a bit like suddenly moving from swinging on one trapeze to catch another. It’s tricky but fun to do.
Alternatively, you could do what Stanley Clarke does in his wonderful performance on YouTube. He chooses to play an open D string instead of all the As and Ds. It has the same musical meaning and is much easier to execute.
I do something similar at the end of the Prelude to avoid leaping back and forth too much. In bar 38, when the notes get too far from the harmonic D I used to play it with my chin, but now I prefer to just let the open D string sound instead and I continue doing that until the end of the movement.