Chichester Cathedral, 21 March
The homework I did yesterday on Beethoven’s Archduke Trio will perhaps be useful another time. The English Piano Trio were incomplete due to illness and so cellist Pál Banda took on the audience of about 300 on his own. And won hands down, although nobody who was there to hear him could be regarded as having not been a winner, too. Any disappointment one might have felt about the loss of an Archduke was banished in an instant.
From the opening phrase of Bach’s Suite no. 2 one was struck by the sound his instrument made. I’ve heard this music any number of times in the flesh, on record and on television by many of the ‘legends’ of the cello but I’m not sure I’ve heard it sound quite like that. I first thought it was the instrument but it can’t do it without the musician, or the acoustic. They all need each other.
However, the instrument is a bit special, ‘a Grancino that was once owned by the Esterházy family’, and so it’s possible that Haydn was acquainted with it, but we don’t know and probably we never will. But it’s occasionally remarkable how few degrees of separation one is from such greatness.
Not long ago in Portsmouth Cathedral we had Ravel on his birthday and today was Bach’s 338th, depending on which calendar you go by. In the Suite no. 2, the Prelude was all unhastened clarity, the Allemande exemplified this music’s solitary but apparently all-encompassing enquiry into eternity or whatever one wants to believe its explorations are in pursuit of. It noticeably gathered pace, possibly enhanced by Pál’s behest, in the Courante before the deep, grave Sarabande brought to mind the sorrows of St. Colombe in the film Tous les Matins du Monde, as it usually does. (Apologies if I always say so.)
Pál plays with such authority that by this time I was already wondering how he is regarded by those who know in comparison with the litany of musicians who have played this music from Casals, through Tortelier, Rostropovich and many more since. The cello is my favourite instrument bar none but I’m not in a position to say and wouldn’t want to. The Minuets wore their hats on the side of their heads before the Gigue was driven towards a bit of a flourish to end with a flourish but not quite such a flourish as Suite no.3 begins with.
The Prelude on this occasion evoked eddies and whirlpools, for me, but it can be different each time. Like much great art it can be made to mean whatever you find in it. After which, using entirely different patterns, very much the same words as described no. 2 could be used to describe no.3 which just goes to show what a hopeless task trying to describe music in words is because it didn’t sound the same at all. 3 is a much happier suite than 2 and I’ll be checking Steven Isserlis’s book later to see if he thinks so, too.
In the Courante, Pál was all dexterity. The solemnity of the Sarabande made it very hard to believe that these pieces were only written as exercises. Surely anything so profound-sounding must have meant something to the person who wrote it and for the Bourrées and Gigue see as above under Minuets and Gigue but with, as required, a bigger finish.
The book I took with me was yet another brilliant account of John Donne (about which more later and elsewhere) and upstairs in Chichester Cathedral’s library they have a book signed by – but not written by – Donne which was an even closer and more definite degree of separation from greatness. But Bach and Donne are entirely different. Donne is dubious for writing primarily about himself and his poems of ‘love’ and religion, and his sermons, are much more about him than love or religion. You can’t say that about Bach who, surely more than any artist since, and maybe even before, said nothing about himself beyond using his name as a tune in The Art of Fugue. He takes himself out of the equation and that might well be where his unparalleled greatness lies.
And in Pál Banda he had an ideal vehicle for these ever-thrilling compositions. They thrive on their own mystery. Come December, it may or may not be deemed necessary to compile a short list of Events of the Year. This is the third candidate for it already. Such things should not be reduced to the tawdry level of a league table and last year I didn’t pick an outright winner but some things are somehow ‘better’ than some other things and sometimes, in some way, that is in some part, the point.
Chichester Cathedral, 21 March