Anner Bylsma, Eminent Cellist With an Ear for the Past, Dies at 85

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 may have actually heard, died on July 25 in Amsterdam. He was 85.

The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, his family said.

Mr. Bylsma played a wide repertory 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 the recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen and the 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,” Mr. 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.

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