Back to Bach

Later today, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is going to play all six Bach suites in memory of those who have died of Covid-19. He has performed the suites in many parts of the world and now will play them in a concert online. (See a previous post: Yo-Yo Ma builds bridges with Bach.) He has been playing Bach’s music to communicate his message of peace and hope across nations and now he will play a memorial concert for those who have been lost to the pandemic.

For me, as a cellist, Bach’s suites for solo cello are, of course, very special. But I also adore Bach’s magnificent works for large forces. The St John Passion for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power. I was lucky enough to catch an unusual online performance of this work arranged for solo voice, percussion and harpsichord/organ given on Good Friday at St Thomas Church, Leipzig. Yes, the church where Bach was concert master and organist. It was arranged and sung by Benedikt Kristjansson. Wow! Am I glad I stopped still for a few hours to watch this. The singing was spine-tingling, the arrangement imaginative and creative. It was one of the most moving performances of the piece I have ever heard. And that was the third St John Passion I had heard since lockdown!

And the other two were by the Berlin Phil. One of the first things I did was take advantage of the 30 day free trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra digital concert hall: a treasure trove of concert archives. It was the beginning of lockdown and I was full of positive energy and optimism that a few weeks indoors would cure this pandemic. I spent several days watching concerts including two performances of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. Mark Padmore sang the part of the Evangelist, Simon Rattle conducted and Peter Sellars directed these stunning dramatised performances. Each performance was profoundly  moving and affected me for days afterwards.

Now, several weeks on and still in lockdown, Bach’s music remains balm for the soul, for me. So thank you in advance to Yo-Yo Ma for this concert of Bach’s cello suites to be performed on You Tube at 8pm this evening.

Yo-Yo Ma plays a Bach memorial concert, on Sunday, May 24 at 3p ET (8pm BST)

For performances of St John and St Matthew Passions and much more:

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Digital Concert Hall

 

Anne-Isabel Meyer plays Bach at Edinburgh’s Fringe

For three weeks every summer, you can feel Edinburgh buzzing as the International Festival and the Fringe take over the city. Just yards from the noise and bustle of the street, I found a gem of serenity in St Cuthbert’s Church, at the West End: a recital of all six of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Anne-Isabel Meyer, over three consecutive days.

Despite the grandeur of its ornate decoration, St Cuthbert’s feels like an intimate setting for unaccompanied cello. Its acoustic is resonant but clear and Anna-Isabel Meyer obviously loves playing here. This London-based cellist has a calm demeanour and she played with a warm tone. Each day, I felt even more privileged to hear how she allowed Bach’s music to speak with precision and clarity – no adornment or over interpretation here. Throughout the performance, the intricate melodic patterns of the preludes flowed freely, as did the dance-like quality of the allemandes, sarabandes, minuets and gigues. The famous bourrées of the third Suite just danced for joy.

Her performance of the Sarabande of Suite 5, for me, epitomised her sensitivity to Bach’s score. The music of this movement is apparently simple, no chords, no accompanying figures, trills or dotted rhythms. Meyer simply let the natural rise and fall of the phrases create their own meaning, allowing us to make what we would, of Bach’s perfectly crafted melody. I found it profoundly moving.

The sixth suite, written for a five stringed cello, truly tests the cellist. Playing this on a four-stringed cello, you have to create the higher sounds using the thumb in place of the extra string. She explained to the audience how at first this is painful and can lead to a blister on the thumb – I’ve had that blister too! Watching closely from the front row, I observed her meticulous technique, as she created the chords and inner harmonies and allowed the melodies to dance above them.

“Playing Bach’s cello suites is like going on a journey” Anne-Isabel Meyer tells us, “and next time it may be completely different.”

Here is a cellist with a deeply musical sensitivity. I look forward to joining her next year when she returns to St. Cuthbert’s to make that journey with the Bach Suites once again.

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach’s Cello Suites

This is a shortened version of the article published on July 19th.

YOYO MA
My cat transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording of the Bach cello suites but perhaps more importantly, he is performing them 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 six concerts still to go: in the US, Lebanon, South Korea, 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.

 

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach

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. 

YOYO MA
Even my cat was transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

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.