This ECU faculty recital was held in Fletcher Recital Hall on the ECU campus. The excellent acoustics were enhanced, as Handel observed, by the paucity of audience; there were fewer than forty who had the great good fortune to hear this fine performance. To set the scene: Cellist Emmanuel Gruber was severe in all black in this hall of white and “Norwegian wood,” bringing focus to his shiny cello. The program was equally focused, Suites 1, 5, and 3 for solo cello by J. S. Bach, S. 1007, 1011, and 1009, played from memory. This is about as cerebral a concert as could be imagined. Gruber is a big name, not just in Greenville or in North Carolina, but in the international music world. His credentials are much greater even than listed here. Big names are not, in themselves, meaningful. But to hear Gruber’s playing, excellent in every way, was the guarantee of his accolades.

Solo cello is a tour de force for a performer, especially when the program is these three very serious compositions, in some ways so similar in style and in some ways so varied within each suite. Of particular notice was Gruber’s ability to emphasize passages not only by playing loudly, but by playing incredibly softly and delicately.

Adding to the cerebral focus of the concert was Gruber’s precise and motionless posture. He made no movement other than that required to make the cello speak; the effect was almost like sitting and listening to a good recording. Were it not for the fluid sensuousness of the music, it would be “move along, move along; nothing to see here.” This adds to the fact that Bach has not tortured the cello, only the cello player. In these suites Bach never calls on the player to let his fingers do any walking much higher than the third of the fingerboard nearest the nut – no fingering fireworks, just musical fireworks.

All this self-effacement led to showcasing the cello and the music, not Gruber himself.

The order of performance, No. 1, No. 5, No. 3, provided a pleasant series: G, C minor, and C. Gruber could be heard doing only very minor touch-up tuning backstage between Suites No. 1 and No. 5, so it would seem that he used one of the modern arrangements that eliminates Bach’s suggested scordatura for Suite No. 5.

Gruber introduced a fair amount of tension in the Prelude in Suite No.1; throughout the performance he walked a beautiful line of happy compromise between a strict tempo and excessive flexibility. The Gigue was stately in tempo.

The Allemande of No. 5 can be described as an implied fugue. The subject is magisterial; two or three notes of double-stopping introduce the place where the next voice should enter, so that we can complete the fugue in our heads. Gruber emphasized these places with great clarity.

The third suite of the evening, No. 3 in C, was performed with much more warmth and freedom than the two previous and invited a much greater engagement with the audience. Gruber found and brought out in great prominence the brilliant trumpet calls lurking within the Allemande. His mastery of loud and soft was especially effective in the Bourrées.

This was a long concert – over 90 minutes – but the generous, flowing lines of music never dragged and never bored. Gruber’s modern cello interpretation was broad and musical. His presence in Greenville is a star in the ECU crown.