Alban's Blog

Three days in Paradise

Sta.Caterina del SassoAfter having pushed myself through the truly exhausting Bach-Marathon in Berlin last week (all six suites in a row with just one intermission, playing all repeats…) I had the luxury to play them again spread over the past two days, but not just anywhere: On Thursday evening I arrived in the gorgeous little town of Stresa situated directly at the heavenly beautiful Lago Maggiore, about an hour north of Milan. Two years ago I had played the Brahms Doubleconcerto with the Manchester Philharmonic and their chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda whom I liked very much.

Sta.Caterina del SassoAt the dinner following the concert he asked me if I was playing the Bachsuites. A bit surprised by the question I said that as a cellist we always have to play the suites, but only once did I play all of them, a couple of weeks ago, which t I enjoyed so much that I would do it again anytime. He told me about his Stresa Festival where every year all the Bachsuites are being performed by a different cellist.

Half a year ago my management received the official request for playing them all on July 30 and 31. I was a bit hesitant because it was in the middle of the holidays and my dream of spending summer without the cello would not become true. On the other hand the temptation being forced to play for three weeks only Bach (with the preparation time) outweighed my hesitations, and now I am even more glad that I accepted it, not at last this gave me the idea to offer the concert to the Radialsystem (as I described in my previous blog).

Back to my arrival on July 29: the festival had put me up in the glorious Regina Palace with full view of the lake from my room – it felt like holidays, at least 100 years removed in time. I had not visited the festival’s website and was completely taken by surprised when I found out that the concerts would take place at a little monastery on the other side of the lake, accessible only by boat. The 120 members of the audience (this was the maximum capacity for the little chapel) were going to meet at 8 pm at a boat bringing them to Santa Caterina del Sasso, without any doubt the most magical place I have ever played at. In comparison to the Radialsystem it was a completely different audience, definitely a bit more conservativ but still pretty young, which suprised me.

For me playing there proved to be so much easier than in Berlin, and that was not only because of the fact that I had two days instead of one, but the space was so much smaller and such rich acoustics that I had to work much less hard. At the Radialsystem I had to fill this huge space, at least ten times bigger, had to “talk” with my music to 460 instead of 120 listeners, and besides that in Stresa I had already the experience and the endurance under my belt, so this was now pure enjoyment for me. Would have been interesting to hear from somebody who went to both venues (I don’t think anybody did) if this affected my playing and my interpretation at all. In my experience sometimes the “suffering” brings out some other qualities which are missing when I actually feel good while playing.

Oh, it was far from easy, Bach is always a challenge and I refuse to play it “easy”, but I didn’t have to bite my teeth as I was doing in Berlin when I felt close to collapsing on stage. One journalist in Berlin asked in his rather negative review if it was really necessary to play them all in one evening, and after playing them on two evenings now I must admit that it felt less complete, that I, as much as it hurt, would have actually loved to do them all again, especially in such a venue where the cello sounds by itself…

I am contemplating if this autumn I might do a little two-week mini-tour through Germany offering to play all six Suites in alternative venues, kind of an ad-hoc plan, playing where people want me to play, trying to prove that anybody would love this music if confronted with it. My oldest and closest friend Philipp brougth to the concert in Berlin a friend who had never attended a classical concert before and who claimed that he loved every single second of the Suites. An acquired taste? Maybe really not, maybe this music in its almost paradox simple complexity appeals to anybody with open ears – you don’t have to be able to read music or have a lot of experience listening to classical music, you just have to open your ears and soul and let this deeply human music flow into your being. Worth a try… 🙂

Just returned home to Berlin for barely three hours – plane to Hong Kong leaves in two hours for a little tour with the Asian Youth Orchestra, playing Schumann and Don Quixotte, and yes, I am taking Janos with me, hopefully we’ll have tons of fun there!


  • Frank Robinson


    I was a fortunate attendee at both of your concerts in Stresa this week. I am interested to know the name of the first encore that you played last nite (31 July)
    Thanks very much and I will be anticipating enjoying your playing again.

    Frank Robinson

  • Alban

    Hi Frank,

    thanks for coming to both concerts – that means you didn’t hate the first too much… 🙂
    My first encore was the first movement of the Solosonata by Györgyi Ligeti, the second encore was the Moderato by Mstislav Rostropovich, and on the second evening I played the second movement of the Ligeti Solosonata as encore before playing my favourite, the Prelude of the 6th Suite again.
    Best wishes from Hong Kong,

  • francesco

    Hi Alban,
    sorry if i write in italien, but i dont’t hnow so well the englisch.

    Sono molte felice di questo tuo blog, perché Santa Caterina del Sasso è un vero Paradiso: Ernest Hemingway rimase affascinao come te, e lo descrisse come uno dei posti al mondo più belli, e il tuo “Three days in Paradise” lo conferma. Anni fa con amici abbiamo contribuito che questo stratordinario monastero potesse fare anche spettacolo, musica e teatro.
    Sorry, non ho potuto vedere i tuoi 2 concerti, lo volevo tanto, ma non è stato possibile, io non ho auto nè patente, e sostarmi da Milano è molto difficile.
    Ho scoperto il tuo sito web che è meraviglioso, e ho imparato a conoscere quanto sei bravo!!!
    E il sito web è molto generoso, grazie. Sto ascoltando tante cose e mi riprometto di acquistare i tuoi CD. Ma è bello vederti su You Tube: il tuo commento sul concerto di Dvorak è bellissimo.

    Thank you for great emotions.

  • Regula

    I’ll just say “me, too” to Francesco’s perfect summary: “Thank you for great emotions”. I can’t find more words – music takes over where language stops, and sometimes it makes language stop. The intimacy of Santa Caterina contributed something that must have at least compensated for the quality that came with the special effort in Berlin. Maybe the Radialsystem made you suffer enough for three concerts:-)

    As for the wonderful idea of an alternative Bach Suites tour, you might consider including the “Gare du Nord” here in Basel – JUST ABOUT still in Germany – a really cool venue which does weird theatre and new music, but also kiddie stuff and… football! Check it out: We’ll be there 🙂


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