Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bach: The Cello Suites

I know of no music that is more musically and spiritually rewarding than the cello suites of J. S. Bach. Ever since the Vancouver Recital Society announced a performance of all six suites by the young cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, this had been the concert I had most anticipated all year long. I certainly did not come away disappointed.

Queyras announced at the beginning of the concert that, contrary to what was said on the programme, he was going to play the suites sequentially, so that we could hear the progression, or evolution, of Bach’s compositional thoughts. Other than the Préludes to each suite (which has no repeats), Queyras played the repeat of the A sections of each of the dances, presumably to balance the length of the (usually) longer B sections.

In the Prélude of the Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, Queyras established a, for lack of a better word, natural tempo that allows for the ebb and flow of the music. The bass notes that begin many of the phrases serve as sort of an anchor for that particular phrase.

For the Prélude to the Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008, the artist created a sense of the space, or spaciousness, of the music. His performance of the energetic Courante was exhilarating. In the Sarabande, he conveyed the sense of emptiness, of bleakness, so inherent in the music.

Queyras conjured up a veritable storm in the series of broken chords beginning at m. 40 of the Prélude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009. I also appreciated his light-footed playing of the Bourrée I.

The violinist Nathan Milstein was once asked to name the most modern composer he had ever played, and he responded, “Bach.” Indeed in the Prélude to the Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010, the composer, with the help of the artist, led us into some very strange territories harmonically. Queyras successfully highlighted the “weirdness” of this incredible music. As in the Suite No. 3, the cellist played the Bourrée I of this suite with a beguiling lightness, especially in the many 16th-note runs throughout the music.

With the last two suites, the music becomes distinctly denser, and I really sense that Bach was painted on a much larger canvas. The young artist conveyed the gravity and somber mood of the Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011, with the first notes of the Prélude. This was especially apparent in the many dotted note figures in the opening section. I thought his transition from 4/4 to 3/8 time was very logically and naturally done. Queyras conveyed the massiveness of this Prélude, probably the longest piece in the set of six.

For me, Queyras’ performance of this fifth suite was the emotional high point of the entire performance, which is saying a great deal. His performance of the Sarabande was truly stunning, and time stood still in that duration. The opening falling figures were so beautifully played that the audience, I sense, scarcely breathed.

I really appreciated the energy Queyras conveyed with the first repeated D’s of the Prélude to the Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, an energy that he sustained throughout the entire suite. The Courante was played with a breathtaking lightness. Glenn Gould was once asked what it was that attracted him to the music of Bach, and he answered with one word, “Compassion.” Hearing his performance of the cello suites, we certainly sense this quality in Bach’s music that Gould alluded to.

Before the afternoon, I had been a little concerned about the acoustics of the Orpheum Annex but, as it turned out, the intimate space suited the sound of a single cello just perfectly. It was neither too resonant, nor too dry, and allowed the intimate sounds of Bach to drift through the space.

The foregoing were just some thoughts that came to me during the concert. It takes courage for any artist to play all six of cello suites in a single afternoon, and Queyras’ performance yesterday afternoon was an astonishing display of musicianship. Let’s hope that the VRS would have him back in the nearest possible future.

I am grateful to the VRS for giving us this incredible musical experience; grateful to Queyras for his astounding performance, and grateful most of all for the creative genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Patrick May
January 22, 2017

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