Stories » Yo-Yo Ma faces a Bach marathon at the Proms / theguardian

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Yo-Yo Ma faces a Bach marathon at the Proms / theguardian

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Something weird happens in Bach's fifth suite for unaccompanied cello. The soloist, who has been bowing away for the past hour and 25 minutes on the previous four suites, tackling some of the most soulful and demanding music in the western classical canon, is suddenly confronted with a new challenge. And it's still a good 40 minutes before he or she can get a well-deserved cup of tea.

"Bach decides he's going to enrich the sound of the instrument by tuning it down, taking the A string down to a G," explains cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "He's saying, ‘If I do that, I can get more overtone, I can make the chords richer, make it more polyphonic.' He's trying to make a single-line instrument give the illusion of several voices."

Does that make it more difficult to play? He sighs. "Gosh, yes. It makes it more impossible."

If you want to hear Yo-Yo Ma battling with impossibility, go to the Albert Hall in London in September, where the great cellist will play all six suites straight through. "It is highly unusual to do that. I think maybe I've done it three times in my life at most." So why is he doing it? "I'm turning 60 in October and it's a quirky birthday present to myself because these suites are so meaningful. They're not only companions and friends, but they've also been reference points in my life."