Thursday, August 8, 2019

In memoriam: Anner Bylsma

Anner Bylsma. Image:

I learned today from Anthony Tommasini's obituary in the New York Times that Anner Bylsma, the renowned Dutch cellist, died in Amsterdam on July 25.

Bylsma was a champion of performing 17th- and 18th-century music on the instruments of the time. While this is now common, he was a period-instrument pioneer, first playing historical instruments in the 1950s. I was introduced to him through his 1999 recording of Vivaldi's six Sonatas for Violoncello (published in 1740, but probably composed earlier). On that recording Bylsma played a violoncello built by Matteo Goffriller in Venice in 1693. It took some time for my ears to adjust to the sound of Bylsma's cello, whose gut strings produced a sound both softer-grained in tone and softer in volume than modern steel-stringed cellos. But once I had learned to hear the warmth of the instrument and the lyricism of Bylsma's playing, I was won over.

Here is his performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's Sonata for Violoncello No. 3 in A Minor, RV 43; the continuo is played by Francesco Galligioni (violoncello), Ivano Zanenghi (archlute), and Andrea Marcon (harpischord):

I soon sought out his other recordings of cello music by Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Boccherini, and Mozart. All are wonderfully rewarding, but I think my favorite is his second recording of Bach's Suites for Solo Violoncello, done in 1992 (he had made a previous recording of the suites in 1979). Pablo Casals' historic first recordings of these pieces in the 1930s set a standard that few musicians have approached since; in my view, Bylsma's 1992 recording is one of the few that can stand comparison with Casals'. To hear the two cellists performing different movements of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, please see my post on Eric Siblin's book The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece.

Here is Bylsma's performance of the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, played on the "Servais" violoncello built by Antonio Stradivarius in 1701 and now housed in the Smithsonian Institution:

If you are interested in more details of Bylsma's life, please see Tommasini's "Anner Bylsma, Eminent Cellist With an Ear for the Past, Dies at 85" in the New York Times.


  1. Dear Pessimissimo,

    Thanks for spreading the sad news of Anner Bylsma's death. He is the cellist I have collected most and listen to frequently. His approach to the cello was both rich and playful, providing me with "new ears" nearly every listening. I strive for an effect close to his when playing the Sarabande from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 at funeral memorials. Perhaps you can post this link to his sublime performance of it on the "Servais" Stradivarious cello:

    M. Lapin

    1. Cher M. Lapin:

      His performance of the Sarabande has such a sense of inwardness and sadness, but also serenity. It's a perfect choice for a memorial, and a supreme example of both Bach's art and Bylsma's. Many thanks for the link, and your comment.