Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the cello is my favourite; perhaps because it has often been observed that it is the one which comes closest to the human voice. The renowned cellist, Pablo Cassals (1876-1973), likened it “to a beautiful woman who has not grown older, but younger with time, more slender, more supple, more graceful.” Ever the wit, Sir Thomas Beecham, whom I quoted in an earlier post, once remarked to a lady in rehearsal “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands – and all you can do is scratch it.” The cello is an essential member of the orchestra, not only for underlying accompaniment, but frequently as an introducer of melodies – and, as such, a perfect candidate for solo pieces and concertos alike.
There are countless works to choose from, but I can’t resist starting with the cello suites of J S Bach (1685-1750), not least because it is about time we had something from this composer; and also because these works not only explore the full virtuosity of the instrument, but demonstrate how close the cello really is to the human voice. Composed around 1720, they are based on different baroque dances and technically very difficult to play. As a result, they only really came to get wider recognition during the last century, when a host of top players added them to their recording output. The prelude, opening the first suite, is probably the most instantly recognised, but none the less beautiful for its familiarity, so that is what I have chosen. I have gone for a recording by the popular cellist, Yo Yo Ma, who has done as much as anyone to acquaint us with these suites. He takes it at a good pace, but the separate voices are clearly articulated, and builds it up to a lovely conclusion. Brimming with feeling, it’s under three minutes, but I hope it may whet your appetite to hear more of them, they are the best company when you have time on your own.
The genius of these pieces is that just one instrument seems to be playing several parts at the same time. Legend has it that amongst themselves, the heavenly hosts play Mozart; but when performing for God, they turn to Bach. Not hard to see why.