Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bach Suites for Solo 'Cello at the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

The 17th Jerusalem International Festival of Chamber Music took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 4th to 13th 2014. Well attended, the concerts attracted music-lovers from far and wide. This year’s concerts commemorated “two diverse but, each in their own way, highly significant anniversaries…the centenary of the outbreak of World War I…[and] the 160th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss”… in the words of pianist Elena Bashkirova, the festival’s artistic director. Another focus of the festival was the chamber sextet. With the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival drawing to a close, this writer attended a concert on September 12th , a program very different in format to the typical JICMF program – three of J.S.Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied ‘Cello, each performed by a different ‘cellist.

Gabriel Schwabe, born 1988 in Berlin to German-Spanish parents, began playing the ‘cello at age nine, studying under Prof. Catalin Ilea at the University of the Arts (Berlin) from 2000 to 2008. The recipient of many prestigious prizes, a soloist, chamber musician and recitalist, he has been artistic director of the “Resonanzen Siegburg” chamber music since 2012. Gabriel Schwabe plays a ‘cello by Francesco Ruggieri (Cremona, 1674). Pablo Casals, who in 1889, at the age of 13, found a copy of the suites in a used music store, eventually saving them from the fate of didactic exercises and restoring them to their rightful status as ‘cello works of primary importance, characterized Suite no.2 in d minor as “tragic”. Opening the Prelude in a spontaneous, slightly flexed manner, Schwabe’s strategic playing breathed freshness and a constantly lively presence of sound. Characterized by the contrast between fast runs and arpeggios in high- and low register, the artist guided the listener through the many gestures of the Allemande with a vivid, singing sound. Following a feisty, coherent, highly spirited reading of the Courante, Schwabe’s treatment of the Sarabande was meditative and intimate, his tone broad, as he explored the mysteries of the movement. Excitement, intensity and dissonance mingled with the carefree joie-de-vivre of the Gigue, concluding the performance with a sense of freedom. Choosing discrete, minimal use of vibrato, Gabriel Schwabe’s playing of the work spoke of personal involvement and youthful energy.

Born in 1982 to musician parents in Rochester, New York, Alisa Weilerstein began ‘cello studies at age four, making her debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra with Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme”. As a soloist, she has performed widely. An active chamber musician, Weilerstein also performs with her father violinist Donald Weilerstein and mother Vivian Hornik Weilerstein as the Weilerstein Trio. Highly involved in contemporary music, Alisa Weilerstein has worked extensively with composers Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and Joseph Hallman. She is the recipient of several awards. Alisa Weilerstein plays on a 1790 William Forster ‘cello. At the festival concert, she played Suite no.3 in C major. Presenting the Prelude’s cascading 16th notes and shifting patterns with huge dynamic interest, virtuosity and temperament, Weilestein, taking the movement to its rich chordal cadenza with all its rhetorical impact, was in her element and promising to keep the audience at the edge of their seats. In the Allemande, the artist used Bach’s turns, double-stops and thirty-second notes to present the movement’s hide-and-seek elasticity and originality, still weaving some sweetness and naïveté through it. Following Weilerstein’s gregariously emotional and spectacular playing of the Courante, the Sarabande was taken very slowly, as she played out its languishing message out note by note, with melodic lines free of ornaments, save for slight vibrato used to color longer notes. Choosing to play Bourrée I with charm and elegance, her detached notes rendering it light-of-foot, Bourrée II was more singing and serious, with a tinge of pain. The Gigue, shifting from the tender to the vehement, from calm to urgency, the occasional dissonant moment hinting here at the common jig-like folk dance, bristled festively with positive energy. Weilerstein’s eye-to-eye rapport with the broad, bold character of the C major scale went hand-in-glove with her ample use of the low c string and its dramatic resonance.

Born in Moscow in 1961, Alexander Kniazev began ‘cello studies at age six, graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in 1986. Also an organist, he then graduated from the Nizhny-Novgorod Conservatory as an organ major in 1991. A soloist and chamber musician, Kniazev has won prizes in prestigious competitions. As well as performing, he teaches at the Moscow Conservatory and gives master classes in Europe and Asia. Bach’s works have always been of supreme importance to Kniazev. His recording of the complete Bach Suites for Solo ‘Cello was released in 2004 on the Warner Classics label. In his own words, “I try to find a reading of Bach’s music that must first and foremost be very animated…In no way should you attempt to make a ‘museum’ out of it.” At the Jerusalem concert, he performed Bach’s Solo ‘Cello Suite no. 5 in c minor, the only of the suites for which a Bach autograph exists. The work calls for the top string of the ‘cello to be lowered from an “a” to a “g” (scordatura), strengthening the c minor chord overtones. Using plenty of vibrato, Kniazev set the scene for the work with an intense, brooding reading of the mammoth Prelude, addressing its motifs and melodic lines in detail, its Allegro section lighter but still in a serious vein. The artist then brought out the large Allemande’s pensive, somewhat vulnerable character, allowing its melodic strands to dictate flexibility of pace and sound. The Courante was no romp, with Kniazev laying emphasis on its irregular shapes and voice-play. His playing of the Sarabande was probing and deeply emotional, its single line of wrenching leaps and tensions brimming with sadness and pain, down to the movement’s final, hushed pianississimo utterance. Not rushed, the two Gavottes breathed delicate and dancelike naïveté, their voices engaged in conversation. Kniazev paced the Gigue with care, the soul-searching aura of the c minor scale preserved right up to the work’s concluding notes. Alexander Kniazev plays on a distinctively mellow ‘cello that belongs to the Russian State Collection. An instrument played by Piatigorsky, its pedigree reads “Bergonzi, Cremona 1733. Curiously enough, no ‘cellos are known to have been made by Bergonzi. In the 19th century, many ‘cellos produced by the Venetian instrument builder Matteo Goffriller were attributed to Bergonzi. This may be the case here.

Here was a profoundly thought-provoking program in which each artist gave the audience a glimpse into his/her engagement with Bach’s most personal ‘cello music, each holding discourse in a language beyond words.

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