12 March 2012

A Night to Remember: The Six Bach Cello Suites

In a metropolis as culturally and musically vibrant as Los Angeles it takes an event of profound depth and scope to catch the attention of the entire City. Sunday evening's recital of the complete Bach Cello Suites, part of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, was one such event. Rarely does a musical performance generate such a sense of occasion and approach something rivaling a holy pilgrimage: the closest we seem to come to these experiences are performances of works such as Handel's Messiah or the Mendelssohn Octet.

The last time the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello of J.S. Bach were performed on such a scale in Los Angeles was back in 2004, when Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey blew our collective socks off with his marathon evening of all six Suites. Sunday's three hour-long recital, the third concert of the 10-day Festival, presented each of the Suites performed by a different cellist.

Critic and professor Tim Page explores the history
and meaning of the Bach Cello Suites
Prior to the performance my friend Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and USC professor, delivered an excellent overview of the Bach Cello Suites. The history of the Suites is fairly well known. Musicologists seem increasingly agreed that their composition occurred sometime between 1717 and 1723, ahead of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001-06), during Bach's tenure as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. Bach's motivation in writing the Suites was likely due to his acquaintance with two other musicians of the Cothen court, the virtuoso cellists Bernard Christian Linigke and Christian Ferdinand Abel. Curiously, as was the fate of so much of Bach's compositional output, the Cello Suites seemingly lapsed into obsucrity in the decades following their composition. One day in 1890, a thirteen year-old Catlaonian cellist named Pau Casals--later known as Pablo Casals--happened upon a rare printed edition (by Friedrich Grutzmacher) of Bach's Cello Suites that had sat languishing on the shelf of a second-hand music shot in Barcelona. With no model on which to base his own interpretation available, it took Casals twelve years of deliberate, painstaking study of the Suites before he felt confident enough to perform them publicly, and it was another thirty years after that before Casals would make his now-famous commercial recording of the complete Suites. The Suites are far more than mere etudes; they are a richly varied collection of musically-enriching explorations of the sonorities and capabilities of an instrument which was at the time still fairly new. Each of the six Suites is in a different key, and each is progressively more demanding than the one preceding. While no two Suites are identical, they do share the same basic structural outline. Each begins with a sort of quasi-improvisatory opening movement (Prelude) followed by standard movements of a Baroque suite: an Allemande (densely textured, duple-meter dance of German origin full of implied harmonies), a Courante (a sprightly, triple-meter dance), a Sarabande (a slow, stately dance of Spanish origin with heavy emphasis on the second beat), and a Gigue (a faster, typically frolicsome finale). In between the Sarabande and Gigue, Bach introduced additional dance movements; the first Suite employs a pair of Minuets. Even while working well within the confines of old, established musical forms, such as the Baroque suite, Bach manages to hint at a new kind of European musical aesthetic, one that employed strong rhythmic patters, dense textures, and cleverly inventive harmonies.
Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript
of the Prelude from Suite No. 1

For Sunday's concert, the Suites were not performed in what is thought to be the chronological order of their composition. Instead, the First, Fourth, and Fifth Suites came in the first half and the Second, Third, and Sixth Suites after intermission. Former Los Angeles Philharmonic principal cello and current USC and Colburn School faculty member Ron Leonard began the evening with an assured and well conceived performance of the Suite No. 1 (G major). Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga, whose wild double cello concerto received its American premiere Friday night, performed Suite No. 4 (Eb major). As much as I like Demenga, I have to say I found his Bach overly idiosyncratic and rhythmically uneven in several places. His Prelude lacked any real dynamic range or contrast between the primary and secondary voices, which is crucial in that movement. His performance of the Sarabande was lovely, measured, and elegant, though Bourees 1 & 2 were taken at an excessively fast clip. Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi , who studied with a student of David Popper and was himself a student of Pablo Casals, rounded out the first half of the program with an unbelievably, mind-blowingly thrilling performance of Suite No. 5 (C minor). The opening of the Prelude was very measured and deliberate, and the fugue which follows was very beautifully and cogently stated. The Sarabande, in its understated, unaffected plaintive simplicity, was one of the most hauntingly beautiful I have ever heard, so much so that the audience held its collective breath until it was over! Perenyi's Bach was utterly astounding and received the only ovation of the first half of the program.

(l to r) Jian Wang, Miklos Pereny, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Frans Helmerson,
Thomas Demenga, Ronald Leonard take a well deserved bow
The palpable energy left hanging in the air during the intermission was promptly reignited by Swedish cellist Frans Helmerson who began the second half by delivering a performance of Suite No. 2 (D minor) that could very well be called definitive. Jian Wang, who offered a lavishly Romantic interpretation of the Haydn D major Concerto during Friday's opening concert, performed Suite No. 3 (C major). While I found his big, boomy, expressive sound perfectly suited to the Haydn D, I was a little taken aback by how forced and slightly coarse his tonal production came across in a solo context (think Jacqueline du Pre). Wang's sound may be big with an incredibly huge bass, but at times it isn't particularly focused which in solo Bach can become something of a distraction. Even so, the former child prodigy provided one of the most exciting performances of the evening and received an equally exciting ovation afterward. Canadian-French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who also performed during Friday's opening concert, brought the program to a close with a near-flawless reading of Suite No. 6 (D major). Arguably the most technically impossible of the six Suites, it is widely believed that Bach originally composed the D major Suite for a relative of the cello, the violoncello piccolo, which is smaller and includes a fifth string tuned a perfect fifth above the cello's highest string, A. On a standard cello and without the benefit of an extra string, Jean-Guihen delivered a beautiful Prelude full of rich detail and wonderfully contrasting secondary voices. The Allemande, which is by far the longest and most expansive of any of the Allemandes from the other Suites, was well played. Bourees 1 & 2 were wonderfully spirited with slightly impish, humourous accents. I think Bach would have approved.

Sunday's audience was one of the most exceptional I have witnessed in a very long time. I have never seen an L.A. audience so rapt, so attentive, and so quiet! And in the audience were some of the great and the good from the local and national arts scene, as well as several of the Festival's featured artists. I was delighted to bump into blogger Brian Holt (read his fabulous blog Out West Arts), and I was very surprised to bump into Sir Clive Gillinson, artistic director of  Carnegie Hall, cellist, and former managing director of the London Symphony. (I first met Sir Clive in January when I was in New York for an orchestra management course and our group was invited to tour Carnegie Hall).

The Festival runs until Sunday, 18 March and will feature several more master classes, recitals, and concertos, including three performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic featuring Ralph Kirsbaum, Mischa Maisky, and Alisa Weilerstein. The final concert will take place the evening of the 18th at Walt Disney Concert Hall and will feature a mass cello choir of over 100 cellists in a performance of Christopher Rouse's Rapturedux. Visit the Festival website for further information.


bill jones said...

It was one of the best live performance of Tim Page. Really entertaining and classical.

bill jones said...

They were one of the greatest live performers of all time.