Instrumentalist - Cello
Colin Carr, Bach Cello Suites at Bath Guildhall

When a 13-year-old Pablo Casals discovered an edition of Bach’s cello suites in a thrift shop in Barcelona in 1889, the pieces were all but forgotten, in fact, they had quite possibly never been performed in public in the 170 odd years since their composition.

“Why did he write them?” asked cellist Colin Carr in a Saturday afternoon performance of three of the six suites at the Guildhall, the penultimate of five concerts in the Bath Bach Festival. “When did he write them? For whom?” None of these questions can be answered, but Carr posited an answer to the last: “I think he wrote them to challenge himself.”

And since Carr suggested that the six suites belong in that rarified group of compositions that are simply better than any performance of them could hope to be, the cellist added one further question: Why perform them?

“Why?” Carr shrugged as he took his seat on the stage and raised his bow. “I’ve got nothing better to do.”

Carr played Suite Nos 2 and 3 (BWV 1008 and 1009) before the interval and his performing style did indeed suggest a man with nothing better to do – not in the sense that he’s killing time till something better comes along, but in his total immersion in the music, with a perfect balance of intensity and relaxation.

“We have no idea where Bach would have played these suites,” Carr said, looking around the banquet hall with its portraits by Joshua Reynolds and other near contemporaries, “but I have no doubt he would have approved.”

“I am deeply in love with Anna Magdalena,” the cellist declared at the start of the second half, since Bach’s own manuscripts of the cello suites have not survived and without her copies they would have been lost forever. “There is even a theory,” he continued, “that she actually wrote them herself… but we can safely say that that is not a good theory.”

The programme ended with a scintillating performance of the sixth suite and though the applause was enthusiastic and prolonged, it seemed unlikely that we would get an encore. After all, what could follow such music?

Carr returned with his cello – which was made in the 1720s, around the time the suites were composed – and a solution: he played the sarabande from the 5th suite, which he called “the most astonishing of all”.

Astonishing it was. We were fortunate that he had nothing better to do than play it, and we nothing better to do than listen.

Matthew Zuckerman, Listomania Bath
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