All six of them.
These pieces have been interjecting themselves into my life lately. When I started the String Quartet Series back in February, I decided to start with Bach because it’d been two and a half years on the blog and I hadn’t touched his work yet. But to be honest, I was really intimidated to write about the first and second suites, the only ones I’ve gotten to so far, but the experience has been wonderful. There’s also Richard Narroway featured on the podcast, speaking about his Kickstarter project of all six suites.
Anyway, listening to Sir Steven Isserlis play the suites and following along in the big blue Barenreiter book is one of the most soothing, engaging musical experiences I have had, and I’d been eager to prepare articles on the third and fourth suites, but decided it’d be wise to wait until after tonight’s concert. I’ve heard bits of Bach live, but only certain movements as encores or whatever, never sat through the monumental marathon that is all six suites.
Until tonight. I’ve heard Alexander Rudin play before, a number of years ago. He led a local university orchestra (as I recall) in a performance of a Haydn concerto. He’s also conducting an ensemble in a few days in a concert with Tchaikovsky’s serenade for strings and an Aulis Sallinen (!) piece on the program, which I should go to but probably won’t.
Six Bach suites, at twenty minutes each, give or take, plus clappy time and bowing time and intermission makes for a long evening.
Except there was no clapping time. No funny business, no pomp, Rudin walks out, takes a quick bow and begins to bow (the cello). Rudin looked like a lone sailor on a small canoe of a platform in a giant ocean of stage, but he filled the surprisingly not-so-full concert hall with the sound of G major. The first suite was subtler than I had anticipated, bright, but subdued, somewhat mellow. Perhaps it’s my having gotten used to Isserlis’s extremely close-mic’d, very clear recording, and the resonance of our concert hall, but I felt like a little bit of the detail in the work was…. clouded? Phrasing is different, ties and attacks and all the rest and I’m not a cellist (or really any kind of musician), but it seemed a less spirited read than the second suite.
The second bathed the hall in a wash of darkness; where the bright sunshine-i-ness of the first movement was notched down slightly, the darkness and depth of the second was ratcheted up. One and two are a great contrast to one another, and the third and fourth contrast in a different way.
The Courantes of each movement were crisp and lively and pristine, but, at least to my ear, the fourth was more expansive, in E flat major, but covering a larger scope, going to darker places, etc. I know there are many people who decline to add ‘narratological’ ideas to the work since they are dance suites (as Narroway has mentioned), but there is a certain arc or development to the suites, becoming more complex and larger in scope.
After bang-bang-bang(-bang) suites one through four one right after the other, we have a fifteen-minute intermission, not twenty, and after our potty breaks, we return to the concert hall to see our lone canoe of a platform and chair accompanied by a second, somewhat distant chair. A page turner?! Certainly not. No stand. Things became clear when Rudin walked out with not one but two cellos in hand. A young Taiwanese woman followed him out with a microphone, and they explained that a local institution had been kind enough to lend a beautiful cello (apparently dating from 1680) to Rudin for the fifth suite, played in (with?) scordatura, a half-step down. He also mentioned that the first four suites were played with gut strings, and that the final suite would be played on a five-string cello, a modern copy of an Amati instrument.
I’d been talking to my friend and fellow concertgoer for the evening about the sixth and how it always struck me as a bit strange, really, not just because it’s not really meant for our modern cello, but because the method of expression seems so different than all the others. The fifth was played exquisitely well, rich, clear, resonant, powerful. It sang in golden yellows and coffee colors in the more expansive fifth suite.
Applause that had not graced the end of each of the first three suites was unavoidable after the fourth (preceding the intermission) and the fifth, as Rudin went to make his switch. I was a little nervous to see Rudin lean a 300-year-old instrument low against an upholstered chair, but interested to see what our now third instrument for the evening would bring us for this final and until-now-least-favorite suite of the six.
I stand corrected. Maybe it was Rudin’s interpretation, a different approach from Isserlis; maybe it was being in the concert hall and hearing it live, maybe it was the progression of all six works, growing and pointing to the culmination of the sextet of suites. I can’t say for sure, but it was engaging, expressive, a touch wild, completely unique among the set, and played exquisitely.
I thought at the beginning of the concert about how one man, rather swallowed up by the emptiness of the stage, has the responsibility to support the weight of the entire concert hall, to engage his audience (some of whom coughed, or watched him, I kid you not, through binoculars from the front row, or even played with their phones through the entire program) with this chosen program for the evening. While I’d expected a brighter, sunnier, more lively first suite, and kind of wanted to give it a shove to get it going, but by the second suite, everything else disappears, falls away, and there’s nothing but Bach.
A very enjoyable evening, and a bit surprising that the hall wasn’t packed to the rafters with people. Oh well.
Now I’m really starting to think I need to go see Rudin and Musica Viva on Tuesday.