Archive for September 7, 2015

Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Suites for Solo Cello

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 7, 2015 by telescoper

I stayed in on Saturday night especially to listen to a very special promenade concert live on BBC Radio 3 during which renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of the Suites for unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was an absolutely brilliant concert which you can, if you missed it, or even if you didn’t,  download for the next month here. The whole thing runs for over two and a half hours, but I didn’t move from my seat once.

I’ve loved all these pieces from the moment I first heard them. How Bach manages to conjure up such a vast range of melodic and rhythmic possibilities using just the one instrument is almost miraculous. Despite using very few chords, they manage to explore the  harmonic domain too. Part of what makes them so special is the instrument itself – its earthy sound, complete with occasional growls and scrapes, emphasizes how this sublime music is somehow at the same time deeply human, somehow connecting the listener to something from far beyond the mundane world we normally inhabit. I’m not a religious man, but listening to music like this is a spiritual experience for me.

Do listen to the whole concert if you can, but if you can’t here’s a short taster (recorded elsewhere). This is the Prelude to the 1st Suite, the first page of which is here:


If you look at the sheet music you might be forgiven for thinking that it is just a dry exercise in playing across the strings. Listen to it come to life, however, and you’ll quickly realise that you were wrong. The ending of this prelude always sends shivers down my spine.

I know these suites have been transcribed for other solo instruments, such as the flute, but listening to them on Saturday I wondered if they had been transcribed for my favourite earthy and growly instrument, the tenor saxophone. In fact they have; you can hear an example here.  One problem that struck me immediately is that saxophonists have to pause for breath! Anyway,  I must get a copy of the transcription and have a go at learning it, though I think it would take a Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane to do them justice!