Bach Cello Suites: As HIP As It Gets

United StatesUnited States Bach:Carter Brey, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York, 1.4.2013 (DA)

Bach: Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012
No.1 in G Major
No.2 in D Minor
No.3 in C Major
No.4 in E Flat Major
No.5 in C Minor
No.6 in D Major

In this recital of Bach’s complete cello suites, New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey employed the most HIP of any of the techniques on show during the Philharmonic’s current Bach Variations festival. Not only was he using a Baroque bow, a ‘period’ cello, and strings of sheep intestine, but he commissioned a quintuply-stringed cello specifically for the final suite from local craftsman James McKean. Phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and still more aspects of Brey’s playing were then adapted to the specific demands of these instruments.*

Choice of instrument taken care of, the next step for any (rare) performance of the complete suites must be a consideration of more mundane issues of programming. There are, of course, as many ideas for how to conceive of and play the suites as there are cellists who know them. Brey, a synaesthetic, took a colour-led approach not unlike András Schiff’s to The Well-Tempered Clavier earlier in the season (which I reviewed here). This boiled down to pairing suites in numerical order, with two intervals. Add in Brey’s questionable decision to play most of the repeats, and this concert totalled well over three hours of bums-on-pews action. Holy Trinity Church, only a block from Lincoln Center, proved a fine venue, with no noticeable echo and a generally warm acoustic.

The result was a fine concert and a notable achievement. These cello suites sound very different when realised with Baroque tools, certainly compared to the Bach of the past greats. Sustaining notes becomes almost impossible, as does a dug-in approach. Gut strings have a two-phased sound, with an initial clip coming before the full body of the note. Brey found great expressive possibility in that one aspect of his instruments, particularly picking out individual notes and subtleties of phrasing in Bach’s complex writing. Aggression and variation of attack became the key, rather than expansive sound. Often this was enlightening, especially at Brey’s generally quick tempi. At times, though, crucial details were missed and individual moments blurred into imprecision as the instruments failed to keep up with Brey’s stunning virtuosity. Courantes suffered most, all attack and no bite, often with few notes emerging from the deluge. (The exception was an aptly crazy version in the fourth suite.) Sometimes vital harmonic progressions and variation were also skipped over in Brey’s enthusiasm, as in the second suite’s manic gigue.

When it took time to breathe with Bach’s music, however, Brey’s playing was consistently incisive, well thought-through, and obviously a labour of life’s love. The sarabandes were uniformly excellent, finding just the right balance between rhythmic vitality, nobility, and faithful sadness. Preludes, even when perhaps taken a dash on the rapid side, showed off Brey’s pianistic ability to pick out notes and lines from textures, often unexpectedly but always convincingly. Certainly Brey had the full measure of his instruments, finding kaleidoscopic amounts of colour in them despite their drawbacks, even if the five-stringed cello had an unappealingly zither-like sonority and sounded as if it needed considerably more time to bed in.

Three of the suites stood out in these performances. The third danced with even more eagerness than the other suites, and there was a smiling sense of nobility and benevolence in Bach’s warm C major. In his spoken introduction Brey described the sixth suite as sounding like the sun was flooding in after the darkness of the fifth, and so it proved in performance, perhaps the most involved of any in the cycle. Even if the concluding gigue got rather lost in its own enthusiasm, there was a richly harmonised, gloriously treu sarabande, and particularly toe-tapping gavottes.

The fifth suite’s dances of death, however, were the most powerful of all, snapping and lashing throughout. The prelude was full of bounce, with the fugue taken demonically fast. The allemande wandered, as if lost, while the sarabande managed to find the perfect balance between profound despair and a complete faith in the direction it was destined to follow. One could almost have imagined the suite played as an interlude to the St. Matthew Passion.There is no higher praise than that.

David Allen
* There are two videos online of Brey talking about his approach to this concert, with McKean acting as interviewing, here and here.