I suspect that you don’t survive an evening of playing this material, in its totality, unless you have a massive personal enthusiasm for the work, and there was plenty of that in evidence from Robert Max on the evening of Friday 14th June, at SJE.
A programme of the six cello suites without intermission must be extraordinarily hard work for the performer, particularly given the brisk and muscular approach taken by this cellist - a feat of physical stamina as well as deep mental and emotional engagement. Yet there seemed no diminution in the energy he committed throughout the performance, over the course of nearly two and a half hours.
Robert introduced each of the suites, explaining its form and approach in a manner that was illuminating even for an audience familiar with the repertoire; describing the increasing ambition of Bach’s writing, the new experimentation, and the unprecedented demands on the performer. He explained the echoes between suites one and four, and between two and five; the dance forms which were the conventional shape of solo instrument suites at the time, yet the abstract adventurousness of the fifth, an improbable creation from as early as 1720.
The first five suites were played on a magnificent Stradivarius cello, whose tone seemed to gain richness as the evening went on: it was as though it gradually shaped itself to the acoustic of the big church, as such a venerable and characterful instrument can sometimes do.
I don’t know how many five-string cello’s there are around, and there seems to be some doubt as to whether Bach had access to such an instrument himself, or wrote for a ‘violoncello piccolo’; but Robert employed one for the sixth suite because, he said, he had sworn never to try again to play it on a conventional one! It requires some outlandish stretches if played on a four-string cello. It was done consummately well, of course, and was a powerful finish to the performance.
The evening began with bright sunlight filtering through the tall windows; by its end, the church was in darkness apart from the spotlit performer, and there was an extraordinary stillness of appreciation and calm around the building as he brought the work to its close. The unanimous standing ovation was an inevitable and very appropriate end to such an evening - it had felt like a privilege to be there.