Simon Barrow

Bach and back: music that elevates the spirit

By Simon Barrow
August 18, 2013

There is an extraordinary elliptical quality to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which has elevated the human spirit in both religious and non-religious terms over the centuries.

When I was younger, I was rather more attracted to the colour and drama of Handel (for whom I still retain enormous affection). But in the longer run it is Bach who nourishes the most, spinning the mind into new musical directions with an elegance and chromaticism which is underpinned by an extraordinary technical grasp of the instruments he deploys.

That is true of both the larger works, such as the well-known St Matthew Passion, and of the smaller chamber and solo pieces.

The first performance of Bach's famous Cello Suites at St John's Church, as part of Just Festival 2013, on Sunday 18th August, was very warmly welcomed, I am glad to report.

Bronwen Naish's delivery of Six Preludes and Suite no. 1 on Sunday 18th August 2013 was described by one audience member as "simply gorgeous".

The really good news is that she will continue to perform them on Monday 19th, Tuesday 20th and Wednesday 21st, with a break on 22nd and two final performances on 23rd and 24th August.

The six suites for unaccompanied cello are some of the most frequently performed and recognisable solo compositions ever written for cello. They were most likely composed during the period 1717–1723, when Bach served as a Kapellmeister in Köthen.

The suites have been transcribed for a whole variety of instruments. They have been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists, including Pablo Casals, János Starker, Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky and Daniil Shafran, among others.

The Cello Suites are normally performed as single suites, travelling through the prelude and dances in their conventional order.

But what happens when all the Preludes are played in sequence, all the Allemandes in sequence and so on through all the six works?

Their extraordinary inventiveness and variety is suddenly highlighted in a new way. The key changes present a different experience for the listener as do the resulting changes of mood.

Because this is festival time in Edinburgh, and because she has a good sense of fun, Bronwen will finish each appearance with a number on the musical saw (but not by Bach!).

Full Performance information:

18th: 6 Preludes + Suite no 1
19th: 6 Allemandes + Suite no 2
20th: 6 Courantes + Suite no 3
21st: 6 Sarabandes + Suite no 4
23rd: 4 Minuets, 4 Bourrees 4 Gavottes + Suite no 5
24th: 6 Gigues + Suite no 6

Venue: St John's Church (venue 27), corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, Edinburgh. Price: £5. There is a cash box office at the venue.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a media adviser for Just Festival. He has run an occasional music blog called NewFrontEars, though it is mostly taking a rest at present.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.