My first exposure to Bach's Cello Suites, after working as a pop music critic for a daily newspaper, rewired my audio circuitry. It took place in a small concert hall where a cellist with a shock of white hair was bent over a 17th-century instrument. In the hands of Laurence Lesser, the instrument seemed to defy the laws of musical gravity. I heard courtly music that would have made Louis XIV hit the dance floor, but also riffs that could have been powered by Jimmy Page; there were Celtic jigs and spiritual dirges, a spy-movie theme, near-eastern flourishes, modern minimalism and the merriment of a medieval tavern fiddler.
In the programme notes Lesser, from Boston, explained that the suites were largely unheard until 1890, when a 13-year-old cellist was out for a stroll with his father in the old port district of Barcelona. The cellist was Pablo Casals, and when he stumbled on the sheet music of the Cello Suites in a secondhand shop, both his career and the course of music history were transformed. Casals spent the next dozen years mastering the music before summoning the confidence to play an entire suite in public. This image of a boy cellist discovering the music was the dramatic kick-start for the story I now knew I wanted to tell. Soon enough, as I listened to this sublime music again and again, I seemed to hear that serendipitous stroll in the prelude of the first suite.
Wider renown came nearly 80 years after his death, when a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn staged a performance of the St Matthew Passion. It was a triumph. But the so-called Bach revival – the first time he was plucked from the realm of specialists and given a popular audience – remained slow-going. So when Casals laid eyes on cello music he never knew existed, it was very much in keeping with the story of Bach. For those musicians who knew of them, the Cello Suites were considered dry, technical exercises, of some pedagogical value, but not fit for the concert hall. When Casals started figuring out the music he didn't have a model. He had to reinvent the music, because the autograph manuscript had gone missing and the few copies that survived differ in details. We still don't know what Bach had in mind for tempo, dynamics, bowing or styles of play. The sheet music, as a result, comes with poetic licence attached.
The earliest evidence I came across of Casals performing a Cello Suite was in the autumn of 1901. He was on a joint concert tour of Spain with the British pianist Harold Bauer. The newspaper Diario de Barcelona noted that on 17 October, Casals played the 'Suite' of Bach and praised his performance for its diction and dignity. Later in the same tour, Madrid's El Liberal reported that a Bach suite earned Señor Casals a prolonged ovation . The music that had lain dormant for nearly two centuries was finally being heard.