Sergey Malov Plays Bach on Thirteen Strings

New ZealandNew Zealand J. S. Bach: Sergey Malov (violin, viola, violoncello da spalla); The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 28.05.2013 [Pse]

Chromatic fantasy for solo viola
Suite No. 4 for solo violoncello, BWV 1010
Suite No. 3 for solo violoncello, BWV 1009
Partita No. 3 in E, for solo violin

Malov playing Vc da Spalla (Photo MHIVC 2012)
Malov playing Vc da Spalla (Photo MHIVC 2012)

After my recent experiences with “themed” concerts, may I be forgiven for looking askance at “Bach on 13 Strings”? Having explored, without success, avenues like “unlucky for some”, I was soon left scratching my head. However, it didn’t take me long to come up with a really brilliant idea: I consulted the programme notes. Glory be! For once, here was an entirely apt title!

Born in St. Petersburg and currently working in (or, rather, “out of”) Berlin, over the last few years Sergey Malov has been busy gathering competition laurels. In 2009 he won first prizes at Vilnius’ Jascha Heifetz Competition and Tokyo’s Viola Competition. He capped that in 2011, by winning Salzburg’s International Mozart Competition, and scooping three prizes in New Zealand’s Michael Hill International Violin Competition: First Prize, Audience Prize and the newly-inaugurated Julian Paul Anderson Award for best chamber musician.

Not, you understand, that such things cut much ice with me. To my mind, these days they smack of PR-driven devices for “fast-tracking onto the gravy-train” (lucky for some, indeed), and proving not so much musicianship as ability to win competitions – though, to be fair, I’ll concede that they certainly provide ample evidence of a player having nerves of steel (but then, so do academic examinations, don’t they?). I couldn’t give a toss how impressive a player’s roster of “prestigious” competition wins; all that matters to me (and, I’m sure, to plenty of others) is that his or her playing touches my heart, stirs my intellect, and serves what Charles Ives described as music’s “all-sufficient purpose” – that of giving pleasure.

So, the question is, “Where between the poles of honest-to-goodness musician and pyrotechnic wunderkind does this particular competition-winner sit?” The happy answer is that, when Sergey Malov got going, the spectre of that string of “sports trophies” went right out of the window. For a start, he talked. Fortunately, this was not because, for example, like some conductors he seemed to think the programme notes were inadequate, but because he had something interesting to say – and moreover a modestly winning way of saying it.

Sergey hardly needed to (and, in fact, didn’t) elaborate on the “Bach” bit of the title, but he did expound the part about “13 strings”. The programme consisted of unaccompanied solo works for violin and viola, with four strings apiece – and the five-stringed violoncello da spalla. The what? I think that’s a pretty good question, even though I ask it myself. And Sergey’s answer set the scene for an all-but-uniquely intriguing recital.

The modern cello (Sergey said) is properly termed a violoncello da gamba – that is, held between the legs. “Da spalla” means “held at the shoulder” – and, before you ask, the answer’s “No, it’s quite a bit smaller.” In fact, a fair bit of Seventeenth Century ingenuity went into creating an instrument compact enough to be played da spalla, yet having the same range as its da gamba bigger brother. Even so, a guitar-style strap was necessary to support it, crossways, high on the player’s chest. I did wonder, “Why bother?” but as yet I haven’t looked for the answer, and anyway history shows that big brother soon made little brother obsolete.

So, what’s the fascination? Sergey explained that, in Bach’s day, this instrument was very popular, and that recently-unearthed evidence suggests that Bach may well have written his Cello Suites specifically for it. For that reason alone, there is an enticing element of – shall we say? – “speculative authenticity” in playing these marvellous pieces on the violoncello da spalla. Yet, to an adventurous violinist such as Sergey, it represents far more than an historical experiment; it opens up a new world of seductive opportunity. After all, as Sergey delightedly exclaimed “It’s a cello that a violinist can play!” When you think about it, violinists armed with this instrument can potentially muscle in, not just on the Bach Cello Suites, but on the entire cello repertoire. That provoked in me a fairly lurid vision, of cellists armed with a yet-to-be-invented instrument – let’s call it a “violon da gamba” – similarly encroaching on the violin repertoire, resulting in an entirely new meaning for the term “crossover”!

The sequence of Sergey’s billed programme was “cello-viola-violin-cello”. However, he’d been giving this some serious thought, and ended up completely re-ordering it (and, less significantly, replacing the First Violin Partita by the Third). This turned out to be a really neat move, as it brought the different instrumental characteristics into dramatically sharp focus. Thus, by setting the context with the familiar, soft-grained viola (Chromatic Fantasy), the violoncello da spalla (Fourth and Third Cello Suites) emerged as even more seductive, darker-hued, but nevertheless unexpectedly closer in sonority to an “overgrown viola” than a diminutive cello.

Yet, perhaps I shouldn’t have found this surprising; although it was producing the same notes – which did seem surprising! – its structure and mode of playing pointed straight at a resonance considerately less rich than its big brother’s, compensated by comparatively firmer, more sharply-etched articulation. Set against the viola, it looked a bit awkward to play, the deep belly and unusual orientation making it a bit tricky for the player to see what he’s doing.

This probably accounted for the slight sprinkling of perceptible but musically insignificant accidents – wholly absent from Sergey’s playing of the violoncello’s modern relatives – over which Sergey blithely sailed, refusing to compromise his enthralling demonstrations of the instrument’s clarity and nimbleness. It would be a hard heart indeed, that didn’t warm to Sergey’s evident affection for his “pet”, and I’ll swear that there was a subdued sigh of regret when he finally set the instrument aside.

There was yet one more surprise – if anything, more of a shock, albeit a pleasant one – when subsequently he put bow to violin, to play the Partita No. 3. This, to pretty well everyone present the most familiar sound of all, emerged from the shadow cast by the violoncello da spalla’s oak-brown tones seeming suddenly newly-unfamiliar, startlingly brilliant. It felt as though I’d been led from a sunny afternoon through increasingly darker rooms – and then a curtain had been whipped aside to admit a blaze of sunshine.

Of course, all this would “go for nowt” if the man couldn’t “play Bach”. Equally “of course”, the man could. Moreover, unlike some I could mention, his pragmatic, robust approach brought Bach to vibrant life. That’s not easy because, back then, composers provided little more than the notes. So, for many years, folk filled the gaps with increasingly anachronistic guesswork and assumptions, which mostly resulted in ditchwater-dull or bloated interpretations. When the “authentic” movement came along, its researches did much to restore some light to Bach’s reverently-darkened room. However, realising the music’s true beauty and vitality still requires a large, healthy dose of musicianly common sense.

Sergey’s Chromatic Fantasy, for example, started in sizzling – but not simply showy – showers of notes and ended in quiet contemplation, both of which gained form and vitality through carefully considered tempi and subtly graded dynamics and colourations, plus a dash of that essential magic dust – inspiration, insight, call it what you will. And “it” certainly illuminated the Cello Suites and Partita.

One of “its” obvious ingredients was that Sergey had taken particular note that, for all their exalted status as musical masterpieces, these are still, at rock bottom, suites of dances. So, he played them as though he believed – or, probably, in the belief – that you actually can dance to them; and, really, should there be any other way? All right, so the Partita’s opening struck me as too hard-driven, and maybe it was, but the real point is that Sergey’s silvery-sounding, will o’ the wisp fleetness soon convinced me otherwise – and, to my mind, that’s the mark of a truly great performance. A riveting recital , so if you espy an ad vertisement for “Bach on 13 Strings” around your neck of the woods, book early to avoid disappointment.

Paul Serotsky