Six Evolutions - Bach: Cello Suites

Six Evolutions - Bach: Cello Suites

“What power does this music possess,” Yo-Yo Ma pondered on his website before the release of this, his third recording of Bach’s cello suites, “that even today, after 300 years, it continues to help us navigate through troubled times?” There’s no doubt that he answered his own question eloquently and powerfully in these performances. For Ma, who still regularly performs this music in concert, Bach’s music contains “infinite variety” in which the composer strives “to understand everything a cello can do,” He tells of how the composer wrote the six cello suites during the only time in his life that he wasn’t working for the church. “I think of those years as his sabbatical years,” he says. “In other words, the years when he would have fun in saying, ‘What can I do with a lab where I can try all these experiments?’” In the suites, adds Ma, Bach experiments not just with the capabilities of the cello itself, but with music’s power to express the inexpressible, to tap even into ideas of nature and humanity. Read on as Yo-Yo guides us through each of the suites and offers an insight into his interpretations. Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major “Suite No. 1 is the very first Suite I learned when I was four years old. For me, it describes always something in nature or water—something of infinite variety. But there’s an interesting thing that happens in the music of the opening movement. It stops in the middle and then rebuilds stronger. That’s part of the storyline that Bach experiments with over and over again, and is not unlike what we do in society.” Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor “The first movement of this Suite is actually the very first piece I performed as a five-year-old in Paris. Like many of the suites, No. 2 has a head, heart, and hands structure, with the fourth movement Sarabande being the heart, the legs being the Menuets and the Gigue. In the first movement, again, there’s a breakdown. You can hear someone trying, trying, trying to get to somewhere, but being somewhat beaten down, even though the music keeps striving. The suite, however, ends with a note of hope. To this day, it is one of my favorite suites.” Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major “It’s so wonderful when you find a piece of music that is just about pure joy. Joy and celebration. Joy and celebration of human achievement. Joy and celebration of what nature’s bounty gives us. In Suite No. 3, you have the fullness of this expression—which is part of Bach’s wish to understand everything that a cello can do.” Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major “After three suites, Bach thinks he knows the cello completely, but then he asks himself the question, ‘Can the cello do what I want it to do?’ Starting at Suite No. 4, he expands what the instrument can do, but he starts to fool around with structures and takes you into strange places. It’s an amazing achievement. With this suite, we get taken into amazing territory.” Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor “We know Bach was frustrated with certain pipe organs, that they weren’t able to do enough—but it was also true with the cello. By the time you get to Suite No. 5, he decides that he wants more richness. But the cello can’t do it, so you know what he does? He tunes down a string, and that allows him to explore emotional content. And he expands the form—instead of the Prélude being purely an improvisation, he puts a fugue in it, the most complex way to organize music of that era. Then each of the following dance movements goes through a wormhole that takes you into different dimensions.” Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major “Bach thinks he knows everything about the cello, but he wants it to do more. So he wrote the Sixth Suite for a cello with an extra string. He found an instrument to fulfill his desire. We play it on the cello, but it takes us into the higher reaches of the instrument, which are very hard to do. The purpose of doing that is not for technique, but it’s to create architecture. This is the suite where he reaches for the heavens, and he gets you to the sublime, he gets you to transcendence, he gets you to cosmic celebration. It is an unbelievable achievement. After he finishes the Sixth, he doesn’t write a seventh because the seventh is there for rest. It’s the Sabbath.”

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