Our last soirée of the 2016/17 season concluded with Bach’s cello suites. “He is not a bad composer”, joked cellist Philip Higham, who has had an evolving relationship with these pieces over many years. Obviously very comfortable and natural with them now, he unfolded his universe of the suites No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5, with glorious sound and embracing warmth. The beautifully pursued melodic lines, which at times reminded me of the human voice, and the richly explored harmony brought on pureness and encouraged one’s imagination to expand. Philip’s 1697 Milanese cello with gut strings certainly expressed its own feelings, though not rigidly set in one definitive way but leaving a capacity to be flexible. 

The Prelude of Suite No. 2 set a serious and solemn mood and character which prevailed the whole suite. Solemn, but it brought something gentle and a vast spaciousness which surrounded us. After the thrust of the Courante came a heart-squeezing account of the Sarabande. To me, it had the most amazing story-telling effect, in such a calm but convincing manner.  

Suite No. 3, according to Philip, was “Italian through and through”. It was extroverted music with some very ‘acrobatic’ elements, splendidly played in this very intimate setting. The brilliant Prelude set the vivacious mood, its scale and broken chords running freely. Philip’s technical excellency meant that he played everything effortlessly, we were oblivious to the practical challenges of string crossing, shifting and bowing alike, and were able to focus purely on the music. The Sarabande in this suite was expressive and moving, and as with the others, I found a tremendous story-telling effect. The famous Bourrée was uplifting and delightfully delicious with a little bit of added trills and frills. It also reminded me of the time when our daughter and her friends in their Suzuki Method class learned the violin arrangement of this piece when they were little! 

Suite No. 5 returned with a serious mood once again. Philip suggested that the Allemande was even painful and was surely like a long walk in a very dark passage. The slow and sad melody line was sustained gorgeously. One of the highlights of the evening’s suites were the Sarabandes. The Sarabande in this suite consists of only single notes – no chords – no more than six notes in a bar. Yet how incredibly expressive it came across – its acoustic and artistic beauty was truly amazing. 

Although the performance was in such an intimate venue with limited space, every inch of the music was spacious and soulful. I also found it was full of emotional and expressive variations with soaring mountains and deep valleys. Producing Bach’s cello suites at Breinton had been one of my on-going projects; now that half of it is achieved (No. 2, 3 and 5), one day I hope to complete the whole Cycle!