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 Obituary, Anner Bylsma (1934-2019)

Anner BylsmaThe Dutch cellist and early music pioneer Anner Bylsma, who made one of the earliest recordings of the Bach Cello Suites on a period instrument, has died aged 85.

Born in The Hague on 7th February 1934, Bylsma began playing the cello at a young age under the instruction of his father before going on to study at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague with Carel van Leeuwen Boomkamp; shortly after graduation he won first prize in the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition, and spent much of the 1960s as principal cello of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was thanks to a speculative phone-call from Frans Brüggen (then a virtually unknown recorder-player) that he began to concentrate his energies on baroque repertoire and historically-informed performance: the pair quickly formed a strong musical partnership, and were soon joined by the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. In 1968 Bylsma left his position at the Concertgebouw in order to devote more time to solo and chamber music projects with Brüggen and Leonhardt; their recordings together include music by Couperin, Telemann and Corelli, as well as a set of the Brandenburg Concertos, which BBC Music Magazine described as being ‘among the finest period-instrument versions on the market’.

Unlike Brüggen and Leonhardt, Bylsma was never interested in moving into conducting, and only rarely directed from the cello when appearing as soloist – the bulk of his many concerto recordings are conducted by Leonhardt or by Jeanne Lamon, with whom he collaborated regularly from the 1980s onwards. But it is his interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites which dominate his discography; Bylsma first recorded the works in 1979, using a Matteo Goffriller cello from 1699 and switching to a five-string cello piccolo for the Sixth Suite, and returned to them in the early 1990s on the rarely-recorded Servais Stradivarius from the Smithsonian Institute. In the interim, Bylsma had spent time at Harvard as an Erasmus Scholar, where his research encompassed the textual history of the Suites, works which he described as ‘our Sphinxes’; his book Bach, The Fencing Master was published in 1998, and Bach Senza Basso: About the solo works for violin of Johann Sebastian Bach followed in 2012.

Bylsma was a passionate teacher throughout his life, both privately and through public masterclasses; his pupils included Pieter Wispelwey, and just a few weeks ago the British cellist Guy Johnston posted a photograph of himself and Bylsma enjoying a glass of wine together after a coaching session on the Bach Suites. He is survived by his violinist wife Vera Beths, with whom he made recordings of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Messiaen, and their daughter Carine (b. 1983), a photographer and documentary-maker.

Anner Bylsma - some key recordings

Anner Bylsma (cello), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Gustav Leonhardt

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Anner Bylsma (cello), Tafelmusik Orchestra, Jean Lamon

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Anner Bylsma (cello), Vera Beths (violin), Lisa Rautenberg (violin), Jody Gatwood (violin), Steven Dann (viola), Kenneth Slowik (cello)

Available Format: Presto CD

Anner Bylsma, Tafelmusik

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Anner Bylsma (cello), Jos van Immerseel (piano), Vera Beths (violin); L'Archibudelli

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Anner Bylsma (cello), Vera Beths (violin), Jos Van Immerseel (piano)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC