United Kingdom Bach: Maxim Rysanov (viola), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Kristina Blaumane (cello), Iain Farrington (harpsichord). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 20.11.2013 (MB)
Cello Suite no.3 in C major, BWV 1009
Cello Sonata in G major, BWV 1027 (performed on violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord)
Cello Suite no.6 in D major, BWV 1012 (performed on viola)
Cello Sonata in G minor, BWV 1009 (performed on violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord)
What an imaginative programme – and, moreover, what a finely-performed programme, from Maxim Rysanov and friends! Four of Bach’s cello works (or, if you must, viola da gamba for two of them): two solo; one performed ‘straight’; one transcribed for viola; and two of those with keyboard performed as trio sonatas. My only gripe might have related to my unfashionable preference for the piano, but that is not in any sense a reflection upon Iain Farrington’s alert harpsichord continuo.
The C major Cello Suite was performed first, by Kristina Blaumane. Her tempi were well-considered; even if I initially thought the Courante a little on the fast side, I was soon persuaded. The performance was certainly not rigid. Rubato was applied, yet never in exaggerated fashion; moreover, there was a nice lilt to Bach’s rhythms. Each dance was well characterised, leading to a properly climactic yet never uncharacteristic Gigue, in which Blaumane dug deep into her strings. Hers was a rich tone, applied sensitively throughout.
The cello and piano (or, if you prefer, gamba and harpsichord) sonata, BWV 1027, followed. My ears took a minute or two to adjust to the new sound world of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord, but I was swiftly won over. Interestingly, it was Rysanov’s viola, though not in any sense performed in allegedly ‘period’ style, which offered the most audible link with the older viola da gamba. Rysanov is, of course, an excellent violist, but more importantly, an excellent musician. I had the sense, rightly or wrongly, that these performances were somehow ‘his’ – and I for one was grateful for that. The opening Adagio was courtly in character, though it was here that textural busyness most stood out: more, I suspect, of needing time to adjust to the new forces than anything else, though I did wonder whether the harpsichord contribution might have been a little more restrained. A lively yet sturdy second movement ensued, properly based upon a sound understanding of rhythm and harmonic rhythm. I was a little less sure about the opening of the Andante: Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s violin tone was oddly low on vibrato, making for a glassy impression. Fortunately, it thawed, though we might still have benefited from a little less parsimony in that respect. The finale offered a wonderful display of contrapuntal ingenuity, putting me in mind of that to the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto.
Rysanov opened the second half with the D major suite, albeit for viola. His was a much easier podium manner than Blaumane’s; indeed, the way he launched into the opening Prélude could not help but take an audience with him. He offered a similar lilt and rubato to the cellist, but with a more brilliant – though certainly never glossy – tone, which again also managed to evoke in the best way resonances of older instruments: history refracted, considered, rather than misunderstood as antiquarianism. (Do the purveyors of so-called ‘Historically Informed Performance’ realise how little they know of the complexity of the philosophy of history? A little Hegel, Marx, and Croce, let alone more recent writing, should be sent their way forthwith.) It was interesting, if perhaps not surprising, to hear just how different Bach’s music sounded on viola, perhaps as distant here from the cello as from the violin, yet quite how readily it was born anew, the first Gavotte being the only case – though I am not entirely sure why – when I was less convinced by the adaptation. Rysanov offered such an array of character, whether with respect to different note values or to different dances, that the choice of instrument seemed beside the point. Repeated sections were never merely ‘repeated’, yet the difference – that word again – never sounded as if it were for its own sake, as exhibitionism; it was built rather upon solid musical understanding, at times drawing one in to moments of quite breathtaking intimacy. There was wit too, the Courante definitely making me smile at its suavity. The closing Gigue, even with an occasional intonational slip, proved wonderfully captivating, indeed almost Bartók-like in its always-musical excitement.
My ears then had no problems in adjusting back to the trio sonata set-up for the Sonata, BWV 1029, which sounded as if it had always been conceived for such forces. Its opening Vivace was imbued with an irresistible sense of life, likewise the closing Allegro, most definitely a finale in spirit. The intervening Adagio was again slightly the victim of Sitkovetsky’s odd withdrawal of vibrato. (It is not as if that were how he played the rest of the time.) Nor was I terribly enthusiastic about Farrington’s re-employment of the lute stop. But those were ultimately minor points, given a performance in which all concerned communicated Bach’s musical argument with such sympathy.