Just one cello….
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suite No. 3 in C BWV 1009
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suite No. 6 in D BWV 1012
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Bach’s solo cello suites must be the Barbican management’s ideal booking: a guaranteed full house (the audience for the afternoon performance included a high proportion of families, a fair number of which presumably contained young cellists) and a stage setup that consisted of one chair. Yo-Yo Ma brought his own instrument, and easily produced a whole concert’s worth of music. The suites famously generate rich counterpoint and harmony from a single, conventionally melodic instrument, and there is also speculation that at least some of them have profound symbolic religious meaning as well. But Ma’s performance was characterized by grace and lightness throughout: his cello had a bravura singing voice with no trace of the implicit acts of ventriloquism in the contrapuntal voices.
Suite No. 3, familiar to student cellists and television audiences alike, is comparatively straightforward, and works as a charming set of dances. Ma certainly danced, but the music was already on the way to heaven, with a sense of uplift that had little to do with the clodhopping peasants of a traditional bourrée and everything to do with spiritual uplift.
The highly dramatic Suite No. 5, which is occasionally said to represent the passion of Christ, certainly has affinities with Bach’s pasions, and could like them be approached as an outright Romantic work, or equally, since it requires the instruments A string to be tuned down to G and dulls its sonority, as an exercise in baroque roughness. Ma kept a sense of proportion and ease, never digging into the physical depths of the cello’s sound potential, booming the chords or forcing the volume, and concentrated instead on the beauty of the instrument’s voice and the emotional fluidity of the music.
Suite No. 6, written to show off the viola pomposa, a cello with an extra E string at the top, pretty explicitly asks the cellist to do the piece in different voices, growing out from the opening of the Prelude, where the same note is played on separate strings. Ma managed with just the usual four strings to sing gloriously in the instrument’s soprano range and even to make it sound easy, although even looking at him playing it was difficult to work out how he did all those things.
For encores, unannounced, he played more Bach and two pieces from other musical traditions that suggested that Bach might have not been the only composer in the world who knew about grace, at least when helped by Yo-Yo Ma.