At the front of the Royal Albert Hall, a bust of the prince after whom the venue is named gazes out over a gradually swelling crowd. Below it, the tiered platforms upstage where normally an orchestra would sit are unoccupied. The stage is empty but for a simple padded chair and, next to it, three glasses of water atop a small stainless steel table. A thin line of microphones hangs expectantly overhead.
Enter Yo-yo Ma, whose cello will sit shallowly on his shoulder projecting music skyward for the next two and a half hours. His contribution to this year’s BBC Proms is a full recital of Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello. The composition’s movements comprise a “36 part revelation of what it is that a solo cello can do,” Tom Service, announcing for Radio 3, tells us.
The performance is a monumental undertaking for musician and audience—Ma says he has played the six suites start to finish at most three times before. He pauses for a total of no more than 15 minutes over the course of the evening, and the revelation plays out as much on his face and in the movement of his body as it does in the sound that echoes around the vast auditorium.
He has said he wants the audience to “participate in the illusion of four voices”, “to make the piece more polyphonic”, an ambition he believes he shares with its composer. The result is a distinctive tone, rich and full yet clean and shimmering, that makes me love his interpretation of the suites above those of the other cello greats to have recorded them. He has a way of holding the opening note of the first suite’s introductory motif that settles the listener into his relaxed, swaying delivery.
At 59, he is young for someone who has been performing for 53 years, and his experience is in evidence throughout. He seems free and able to pour emotion into a performance that must rely first and foremost on supreme technical ability.
The highlights for me are the prelude and sarabande of the sixth suite, whose joyous melodies are all the more uplifting for signifying the near-completion of such an epic. Ma truncates this final suite’s deep, long closing note with a sharp, excited draw of his bow. He dances about the stage, revelling in having completed the journey for only the third or fourth time in his life. What a privilege to have accompanied him.
Filed under: Music