United States Bach: Peter Stumpf (cello), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 12.2.2017. (BJ)
Bach – Cello Suites Nos.1-6, BWV 1007-1012
Bach’s solo cello suites constitute one of the most fiendish challenges for any cellist’s technique and artistry, but you would not have guessed that from this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital. Peter Stumpf made the music sound easy to play, and he also made it sound unmistakably like music.
Among all the interpreters of Bach’s unaccompanied string-instrument music I have encountered, it was a violinist that Stumpf’s playing most vividly reminded me of: his performance revealed the same sense of directness and honesty as used to characterize Arthur Grumiaux’s playing of the solo sonatas and partitas. Standing somewhere between historically informed practice and the romanticism that must surely inform all performances of the emotionally charged music of Bach, the two men’s stylistic approach could be called “middle of the road” – not, however, in any way implying dullness, but rather signaling the total absence of distracting eccentricity. Nor, it is good to report, was there the slightest trace of eccentricity or self-advertisement about Stumpf’s stage presence, which was at once unmannered and warmly communicative.
From the technical point of view, Stumpf’s command of the many rapid figurations was close to impeccable. The frequent multi-stopped chords shone with an airy clarity that can only be achieved through unerring accuracy of intonation. Musically, the effect of such mastery was to illuminate and enhance the contrasts of mood among the various movements. Alternations between light-as-a feather staccato and a smooth legato heightened the sheer playfulness of some of the courantes and gigues. Occasional pauses on long notes, moreover, never damaged the continuity of rhythm but served, if paradoxically, to emphasize the dance character fundamental to most of them. And the emotional fervor that Stumpf brought to the texturally bare sarabande of the C-minor Fifth Suite threw the intricate textures of the other sarabandes into vivid perspective.
To experience all this was to understand better than ever what makes Bach Bach. Again and again, we think we have come to the natural end of a passage, only to hear it extended by a dozen or so measures. Unlike, say, Bruckner’s familiar inability to come to a punctual close, it shows how Bach’s thought always has new facets in reserve. This is a quality he shares with the otherwise very different Handel, whose ritornellos are rarely content to stop at a symmetrtically compact point but go on to flesh out the musical and expressive message. But then it was a third son of 1685 that came to mind, when, for example, a gigue brought a touch of Domenico Scarlatti into the picture.
For Bach was not for the most part an innovator. His genius lay less in forecasting the musical future than in synthesizing aspects of the past and of his own present – like the style of Vivaldi, who was for him another strong influence – and transforming them into his own powerfully individual language. It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear every element that makes these six extraordinary works so engrossing realized with such authority.