Among the many things we don’t know about Bach’s six cello suites is whether they were performed during the composer’s lifetime, or whether they were intended to ever be performed at all.
One might readily guess that the notion of a musician sitting down before a live audience of more than 5,000 people and playing from memory all six suites in succession would have left the composer astonished and incredulous.
But that is what happened in this sold-out Prom, given by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in front of an audience who sat or stood in near total silence for close to three hours, with only a brief break in the middle.
Despite the size of the venue, Ma’s interpretation never sacrificed intimacy to the grander effect; instead, it drew the listener towards the sound itself. His varied tone – now grainy, now finely textured – sought out an individuality of character in each of the 36 movements while weaving each suite into an expressive whole.
During a magisterial survey of these complex, subtle compositions, Ma’s attention to detail was as notable as his grasp of the bigger picture. The playing was at times tender and introverted, at others bold and sonorous. Throughout, Ma held the measure of Bach’s organic, largely abstracted dance movements and unfolded them before the audience in a way that was intellectually satisfying and heartfelt.
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