<i>Mischa Maisky</i>Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

I've never understood the lure of music marathons. The performer gets exhausted; the audience gets exhausted; the music doesn't improve. Marathons seem inherently anti-musical. Listening to many works over a long period of time is not the same as listening to one long work. Bach's 250-year anniversary is currently giving rise to a number of "sporting events": six keyboard concertos; six Brandenburg concertos. But even in the finest hands, and Andras Schiff's are particularly fine, more finally means less. A concert is not a box of CDs.

I've never understood the lure of music marathons. The performer gets exhausted; the audience gets exhausted; the music doesn't improve. Marathons seem inherently anti-musical. Listening to many works over a long period of time is not the same as listening to one long work. Bach's 250-year anniversary is currently giving rise to a number of "sporting events": six keyboard concertos; six Brandenburg concertos. But even in the finest hands, and Andras Schiff's are particularly fine, more finally means less. A concert is not a box of CDs.

Mischa Maisky's feat of playing not only all Bach's unaccompanied cello suites but the three viola da gamba sonatas as well, is a marathon too far. We began at 3pm and emerged at 9.30pm (this was a Sunday affair). Given this madcap scheme, the duration was intelligently planned; three tranches of two unaccompanied suites (not played chronologically), with a gamba sonata sandwiched between. Paradoxically, the gamba sonata made listening to the suites more palatable; each served to leaven the tranche, the intensity of the listening reduced by a keyboard providing more than the implied polyphony of the unaccompanied suite.

Purists may have been more than a little disquieted. Maisky, a rare visitor these days, is a player of flamboyance: for every single work, the audience was treated to a new costume. Yes, nine different silky, pleated outfits rendering Maisky a cross between Old Testament prophet and a character out of Star Wars. (Who is the designer? Surely a credit is due.) Such costume change - why didn't the guy have a rest between numbers? - gave the day little sense of cohesion.

In the palpably secular environment of the QEH, with harsh lighting and fussy banners, no wonder Maisky's solo playing felt so secular. No manuscripts for any of these works exist in Bach's hand, so it's open season for interpretation; and Maisky's approach is as flashy as his dress. He has a marvellous sound with an extensive arsenal of colours. His approach is dramatic, romantic and full-blooded. (Authenticists eat your heart out.) His fast movements are very fast. But his tendency to apply the breaks, suddenly reducing the tempo to a crawl, is questionable.

That said, the Courante of the C minor Suite, in its gruff urgency, was one of the finest examples of cello- playing I've ever heard. Maisky's playing is driven, intense, no smiles. Only in the Sarabandes and the slow movements of the sonatas did any real sense of emotional release occur, the E minor Andante of the first sonata achingly beautiful.

Maisky plays a fine 18th-century cello, albeit with steel strings. But the choice of a large Steinway for the gamba sonatas was a pity. Despite Daria Hovora's soft touch, too often Maisky struggled to be heard; I longed for the clanking of a harpsichord.

Maisky is performing this marathon 101 times this year. Incidentally, there is a new box of CDs.

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