Since the great cellist Pau Casals brought them out of obscurity, with his famous recordings made between 1936 – 39, the Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites by Bach have become the pinnacle of the cello repertoire. Previously thought of as technical studies, the performance of each of these contrasting sets of preludes and dance movements makes great demands on the cellist. To bring out the character of each movement of each suite, the player must interweave melody and harmony, with dexterity in string crossing and a feeling for phrasing and rhythm. It can be physically demanding to make the music seem to sing and dance without effort. Casals studied the suites for twelve years before performing them in public, recognising them as works of great musical value, which exploit the possibilities of the instrument further than any of Bach’s contemporaries had done. “Bach was in advance of his time.” (Casals. 1956). Performance of Bach’s cello suites has fluctuated in style since Casals’ day, and from one cellist to another they can be played in quite different ways: ranging from a full-toned romantic style with vibrato, to a lighter-touched bowing style with no vibrato. Listening to the Bach cello suites can be an experience of contrasting emotions: exuberance, introspection and sheer joy. To me this music is perfection. I never tire of hearing its many interpretations.
Of course, interpretation of the Bach Suites may develop and change throughout a cellist’s lifetime and for international soloists this sometimes leads to a new recording. The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording but more importantly, he is performing the Bach in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.
Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.
There are four concerts still to go: one in the USA, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.
Find out more at The Bach Project
Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.
Source: ‘Conversations with Casals’ by J.Ma Corredor. Translated by André Mangeot. Hutchinson. 1956.