Nicolas Altstaedt’s masterly Bach performances grace Musikfest Berlin

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [7] – Bach: Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.9.2020. (MB)

Nicolas Altstaedt

Bach – Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007; Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008; Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009; Suite No.4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010; Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011; Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012

What a lovely way to begin my birthday: a morning and afternoon concert, in which Nicolas Altstaedt gave us, in order, all six Bach cello suites. ‘Bach, c’est Bach, comme Dieu c’est Dieu,’ as Berlioz, far from the composer’s most unequivocal admirer put it; once more, he was proved right.

Altstaedt showed himself beholden to no one particular ‘school’ and all the better for it. One might, if one were so inclined, locate the style of his performances within a broad contemporary mainstream — I am not sure ‘period’ is remotely helpful here — but that was not how I thought of them. To take the First Suite first, the opening Prelude was taken swiftly, yes, yet it felt fleet rather than in any sense harried, and benefited from flexibility that was ultimately grounded in harmonic motion. Rhetoric was no thing-in-itself, applied from outside, but insofar as it reared its head, an integral part of the composition and its life in the moment. Line and direction were clear throughout. (I might, for instance, have found myself saying very much the same thing for Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven, however different the ‘style’.) The Allemande flowed in its wake, a different character emerging, once more, rather than being foisted upon it. This, as later on, was music informed by dance, not ‘a dance’, as some naïve souls seem to think it — and worse, insist that it must be. Subtle dynamic shading, quite without pedantry, spoke volumes. Likewise in the Courante, possessed as its successor movements would be, of its own character, generic and specific. And indeed the Sarabande, whose melancholy encompassed yet unquestionably surpassed notions of the ‘courtly’. A graceful and joyful succession of Minuets culminated in a Gigue that flowed rather than grimaced: rounding off, as opposed to Romantic climax. I suppose I should mention the cellist’s use of a ‘Baroque’ bow, but it seems beside the point to make anything more of it; doubtless it informed his way with the music, but informing is not dictating.

D minor, for the Second Suite, brought a darker, more ruminative mood. No one size fits all. Its Prelude was shaped with immanent rather than prefabricated drama. In the Allemande, it became still more apparent that dissolution of boundaries between melody and harmony — next stop Brahms and Webern — lies at the root, pun semi-intended, of so much Bach. A subtle dramatic edge to the Gigue reminded us that no two ‘dances’, or dance-inspired movements, are the same — or at least they should not be.

By contrast, the airiness with which the C major Suite opened oriented us in a different world: not remotely trivial, nor skated over, but a matter of character, even of openness. Altstaedt’s traversal of the Prelude’s tonal territory was highly accomplished and meaningful, not least his communication of subdominant and other harmonic colours toward the close. Once more, Altstaedt showed that a swift Courante need not be breathless. Welcome fifth-movement variation, moving from Minuets to Bourrées, was keenly felt, not least the whispered intimacies of the second Bourrée. Wildness in the closing Gigue at times brought us close to Bartók, but this was but one facet of a performance that emphasised balance and breadth.

After lunch to E-flat major, and a different cello sound. I am not sure I should call it brighter a priori, but that was how it felt here. The Fourth Suite’s Prelude demonstrated just how much Bach’s fundamental building blocks — broken chords, for instance — inform the architecture of the whole. A darker tinge to the Allemande suggested that, after all, such colour was not really a matter of underlying tonality at all; or at least need not be. It is always good to have one’s interpretation (of an interpretation) challenged and reassessed where necessary. Once more, a Courante of infectious energy reminded us that tempo and speed are not one and the same. I was less sure about Altstaedt’s tapering ritardando and diminuendo here, but one is unlikely to be convinced by every aspect of a traversal such as this. The Gigue offered a puppy’s progress of boisterous affection that was yet not without its sterner moments.

Moving to C minor, E-flat’s relative minor, brought what is surely the darkest of the six Preludes. It certainly sounded so here, not least on account of the sound of Altstaedt’s open string bottom C. The movement’s distinctive structure was given its due. Perhaps a more ‘Romantic’ approach would have afforded greater depth, or what we have come to regard as such, but this had its own validity. The Allemande’s gravity looked back to seventeenth-century predecessors, but perhaps more strongly forward; so too did the contrapuntal complexity of the ensuing Courante. Bach’s Sarabande seemed to come from a place of raw, Passion-like emotion: partly numbed, yet all the more powerful for it. The introduction of a new genre, the Gavotte, seemed in context to form part of this different mood and complexity.

For the final, D major Suite, Altstaedt moved to the violoncello piccolo. One could hardly fail to register the difference in tone, by turn more viola-like and more viol-like. Perhaps I should simply say it sounded like itself. The leisurely, expansive, and flexible approach he brought to the Allemande contrasted nicely with a bright, lively Courante. The distanced drone of the second Gavotte afforded further evidence not only of Bach’s dizzying array of invention within the constraints of genre and instrument, but of Altstaedt’s responsiveness thereto. If intonation sometimes went a little astray in the Gigue, its registral rusticity offered compensation. In any case, here was a pair of concerts that was naturally more than the sum of its considerable parts.

Mark Berry

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