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Christ Episcopal Church was the venue for this performance of Bach’s Suites 4, 5 and 6 for unaccompanied cello. It was the final of three concerts on Spirituality in the Arts, featuring Elizabeth Beilman, Peng Li, & Bonnie Thron of the North Carolina Symphony. We also reviewed the performance of Suites 1, 2 and 3.
Bach penned everything he wrote in an unassuming consciousness that the God of his understanding was actually listening. It is in his choral works: the cantatas, passions, oratorios and the B minor Mass that the greatest level of genius was achieved. However, it is in the solo works – the organ works, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, the violin partitas and the cello suites – that we meet Bach intimately and personally. Here we have one musician and one instrument communicating first of all with each other and conveying meaning and aspiration to others in the same space.
Bach’s music was not separate from the man himself. Therefore when he and Maria Barbara lost both of their twins less than a month after they were born all of the emotion of that monumental grief had to have found its way into his music. When Bach got down on the floor in rough and tumble play with his children; that too was expressed in his music. His passionate love life, his concerns about providing for his family, his conflicts with civil authorities, his love of good German beer, his delight in the excellence of a new organ, his satisfaction in the accomplishments of his students – all of this had to find its way somehow into his music and especially in these solo pieces. Of course Bach was an acclaimed organist, but he also played and was an accomplished musician with the violin, the viola, the cello, the flute and more. One gets the impression in all the solo works that Bach was not “composing” but was writing down the instrument’s part of the conversation as he worked out the meaning of human existence for himself.
It is a pity that we do not have more detailed data about the dates of these compositions and their connections to critical moments in his life. We can only conjecture and of course we must be hesitant in our assumptions. After all, we know that Beethoven wrote some of his most cheerful, glorious music at the same time he was contemplating suicide in his autobiographical letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.
The six unaccompanied cello suites show a progression of range and difficulty with each successive one. The Suite No. 4 in E flat, S. 1010, performed by Elizabeth Beilman, poses unique challenges beginning with the very key signature. It is the only one of the suites which is not set in the key signature of an open string – C-G-D-A. Playing double string chords thus often requires awkward fingerings for the left hand. The key of E flat implied strength in 18th century baroque music and this piece begins a leaping arch that repeats many times, leaving a spot for a brief cadenza before returning to the arching theme. In my mind I was seeing a flying buttress. The Allemande and Courante are both full of charm and wit. I imagined Bach had been by a town carnival held on the church grounds. A buffoon appeared in the Courante followed by maybe a fire-eater. The Sarabande sounded like longing. The Bourrees 1 & 2 reminded me of playful dancing and children on the fringe emulating the adults. The closing Gigue called forth more children; little girls chasing little boys, the universal language of laughter wafting away in the air. Of course there is no evidence for my fanciful imagery and it may affect me completely differently the next time I hear it. Bach’s pure music so expertly performed brings delight even without any images.
The 5th suite poses its own unique challenges. It was originally written in scordatura (with the A-string tuned down to G) but it is now performed in a version with standard tuning. Peng Li brought this piece to life with a beautiful performance. Like the 2nd Suite this one is in a minor key – C minor – and like the second suite this one seems certainly to be dealing with grief and loss. It opens in a very somber mood and quickly become so lyrically sad that it brought tears to my eyes. Towards the end of the Prelude it seems to try to become lighter; perhaps an attempt to employ the process of denial to a loss? The Allemande seems to come from a distance as though seeking escape, yet the sadness is still there. The next stage of grief is anger and blaming and the Courante is about as angry as Bach’s music ever gets. The Sarabande sounds like a wandering soul going through an identity crisis. (One of the overwhelming moments in our life time was when Yo-Yo Ma performed this movement at the site of the World Trade Center on the first anniversary of 9/11 as the names of the dead were read.) The Gavottes express movement toward acceptance and the Gavotte goes even further, but ends with a coda, a reminder that the sadness of loss, though accepted as a part of life, is still there.
The challenge of playing the Suite No. 6 in D fell to Bonnie Thron. In Bach’s music and Thron’s performance we heard the summation of Bach’s view of the endless possibilities life has to offer. The Prelude is the pure joy of a bird flying free. The Allemande must recall a garden of endless sensual delights. The Courante brings to mind again the joys of childhood. The Sarabande sings of sweet memories of bygone days and happy shared experiences. The Gavottes are just play and fun and more play. The closing Gigue is full of joy and life affirmation. Who could ask for anything more?
The audience, with sustained applause, let it be known they wanted more and our three wonderful cellists returned to delight us once more with the Little Fugue, S. 578 arranged for three cellos by NCS Principal Clarinetist, Jimmy Gilmore. It wrapped up a richly rewarding afternoon with another joyful, life-affirming gift.