Suite Fifteen: Winners of the 2012 Competition Open “Bach Week” at the Montreal Festival

CanadaCanada Bach: Montreal Chamber Music Festival, St. George’s Church, Montreal,  22.5.2013 (SSM)

Bach: Selections from the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin BWV. 1001-1006 and the Suites for Solo Cello BWV. 1007-1012

Cellists: Ariel Barnes
Arnold Choi
Rachel Desoer
Se-Doo Park

Boson Mo,
Jonathan Chan,
Véronique Mathieu
Emily Westell
Emmanuel Vukovich
Matilda Kaul
Carissa Klopoushak
Kerry DuWors
Andréa Tyniec
Nikki Chooi
Timothy Chooi

(photo: Canada Council for the Arts / Donna Santos Photo & Video)

Fifteen finalists from the 2012 Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank Competition demonstrated exactly what made them winners, with each musician on an historic violin or cello playing movements from Bach’s solo cello suites and solo sonatas and partitas. A brilliant showcase for these young virtuosi, it should help put to rest any doubts about the future of chamber music, any mistaken thought that it’s the music of a dying generation.

As part of the winners’ prizes, each has been given an historic instrument to use for a period of three years. The instruments themselves are from the $36 million collection of strings curated by the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank.

What a treat it was to both hear a well-chosen selection of some of Bach’s finest solo music for strings, and to have the pieces played on unique instruments by individuals who had their own strong views as to how they wanted their brief solos to sound. Running the gamut from the clean, intellectual, yet elegant violin playing of Matilda Kaul to the romantic, lush performance by Arnold Choi on the cello, every soloist had something to say and nearly all said it with genial panache.

It would be ungracious for any critic to take a position as to what was “correct” playing and what was not. The use of vibrato ranged from heavy ˗ Emmanuel Vukovich’s take on Bach’s famous D-minor Ciaccona ˗ to non-existent in the hands of Jonathan Chan (Fugue and Allegro from the Sonata No. 1 in G-minor). Similarly, each instrumentalist had his or her own notions as to both tempi and dynamics: some stayed near the urtext while others went far afield in personalizing their own interpretations.

As each soloist had his or her own musical personality, each instrument had its own timbre, small but resonant in Chan’s hands but large and full in Véronique Mathieu’s Presto from the Sonata No. 1. The variety of sounds was astonishing and made this a dream program for both string and Bach enthusiasts.

Individual performances were at the least serviceable and breathtaking at their best. The difficult Prelude to the infamous Suite No. 6, debatably written for a five-stringed violincello piccolo, was formidably handled by Rachel Desoer. Her clear, easeful control of the strings near the very top of the cello’s tessitura hypnotized the audience. Carissa Klopoushak’s velocity in the Presto of the Partita No.1 was plainly in the no-speed-limit zone. Ariel Barnes did right by the Prelude to the 4th cello suite; he brought out the various colors from the opening motif which is modulated every which way, creating at times a sonic illusion that the same phrases can be heard in two ways at the same time. Andréa Tyniec’s polished reading of the Tempo di Borea from the Partita No. 1 was full of grace.

There were a few minor disappointments. Se-Doo Park didn’t quite succeed in mastering the technical difficulties of the Gavottes and Gigue from the sixth cello suite. Emmanuel Vukovich tried to squeeze a little too much meaning out of the Ciaccona, extending its length beyond one’s attention span. I’m sure that there was some logic as to why certain pieces were played da capo while others weren’t, but I couldn’t see it.

Impressive as well was the audience who clearly understood that applause wasn’t expected until after the performers had completely finished their sets.

Stan Metzger