Anner Bylsma, eminent cellist with an ear for the past
NEW YORK — Anner Bylsma, an eminent Dutch cellist and a groundbreaking figure in the early music movement, the postwar effort to create performances closer to what past audiences might have actually heard, died July 25 in Amsterdam. He was 85.
The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, his family said.
Mr. Bylsma played a wide repertoire on both period and modern cellos, from Baroque concertos by Vivaldi and Boccherini, a composer he championed, to sonatas and chamber works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Messiaen. He was especially known for his accounts of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, which he recorded twice, in 1979 and again in 1992.
He also won acclaim for trio performances with recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, both of whom became important conductors. All three were leading figures of the early music movement. The movement, calling for the use of period techniques and instruments, became an established part of the concert scene and has since influenced the wider classical music world.
Mr. Bylsma’s 1979 recording of the Bach suites was widely credited with being the first performed on a period instrument using gut strings, which were typical of cellos of earlier eras. Pablo Casals’ historic recordings of these scores in the late 1930s, after long neglect, had brought them to wider attention. Today, they are the most performed works for solo cello.
Mr. Bylsma’s recording was striking for the lithe, unforced tempos he took to capture the essence of the dance genres on which most of the movements are based, and for his unmannered approach to phrasing. His tone was focused and warm, with a touch of sweetness.
One of the main challenges of the suites involves projecting the music’s contrapuntal textures. Most movements, though dominated by a long melodic line, suggest strands of counterpoint through fragments of implied phrases and rolled chords. Mr. Bylsma was intent on projecting these strands as clearly as possible and argued that period instruments, using mellower, lighter strings, were better suited to making them audible.
For his 1992 recording of the Bach suites, he used the historic Servais Stradivarius cello. His approach this time was bolder yet disarmingly natural, as Alex Ross observed in The New York Times in reviewing Mr. Bylsma’s performance of three of the suites at Weill Recital Hall in New York in 1992:
“This master of the Baroque cello avoids the extremes of severity and reverence, and plays instead with an utterly natural, almost conversational air,” Ross wrote. The cellist’s sound, he added, “can be tough on the ears,” but “the articulation of Bach’s moods is unerring.”
Mr. Bylsma was born Anne Bijlsma on Feb. 17, 1934, in The Hague. (He later changed the spelling of both his first and last names at the behest of a manager.) His parents were musicians: His father, also Anne Bijlsma, played trombone in orchestras; his mother, Petronella (van der Nagel) Bijlsma, played the violin and was a homemaker.
Mr. Bylsma took up the cello during World War II, as he later told the story, because his parents needed a cellist for a makeshift family chamber orchestra.
He studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague with cellist Carel van Leeuwen Boomkamp, who introduced him to period instruments. In his early 20s, Mr. Bylsma won the school’s prix d’excellence in 1957. The next year he became principal cellist with the Netherlands Opera Orchestra, and in 1958 he took first prize at the Pablo Casals Competition in Mexico.
He was appointed principal cello of the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1962 and held that post for six years. During this period, he toured as a soloist and chamber musician, demonstrating a versatility with both period and modern instruments that was unusual for the time.
In the 1990s, he performed and recorded with L’Archibudelli, a flexible string ensemble that he founded with violist Jürgen Kussmaul and violinist Vera Beths, whom Mr. Bylsma married and whom he leaves. He had earlier been married to violinist Lucy van Dael.
In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Carine Bijlsma, a documentary filmmaker; a son from his first marriage, Dr. Merijn W. Bijlsma, a pediatrician in Amsterdam; a stepdaughter, actress Katja Herbers, who appeared in the television series “Manhattan” and HBO’s “The Leftovers” and “Westworld”; a brother, Henk; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Bylsma performed regularly in the 1990s and recorded with American fortepianist Malcolm Bilson. He taught at the Royal Conservatory and also the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam.
In 1998, he published a study of the Bach suites playfully titled “Bach, the Fencing Master,” in which he unraveled, as he saw it, the “sphinx” that these seminal works had become. In the book, which has been revised several times, he set out to disabuse cellists of “three hundred years of opinions of lesser men — always lesser men than Bach,” and of the “preconceived ideas of people” who “do not even play a string instrument themselves.” This led to a series of books on Bach.
After learning that he had a muscular disorder, he retired from performing in 2006, though he continued to teach and give master classes.
Mr. Bylsma disliked hearing period instruments described as “authentic.” In a 1996 interview in Gramophone, he recalled being asked what is “authentic” in music. The answer, he said, comes clear “when you hear someone play a piece that you know extremely well and it suddenly appears still more beautiful than it was.”