Megan Ward – viola, B Mus honours student at New Zealand School of Music
Bach’s Cello Suite No 5 in C minor, transcribed for viola
St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt
Wednesday 6 June, 12.15pm
The long-standing series of lunchtime concerts at Lower Hutt has started; they run through till the end of October.
Bach instructed players of his fifth cello suite to tune the A string down a whole tone, to G, so the score shows notes that would be played on the A string a tone higher than they actually sound. The viola is tuned exactly an octave higher than the cello, so A is also the viola’s highest string.
The suite normally lasts about 25 minutes, but Megan Ward used the balance of the three-quarters of an hour to talk about the work and to pause after each movement to comment on the next. Thus there was clapping after each movement, which would have been conventional at the time of composition. That convention matched Megan’s approach to the playing which she explained was to follow aspects of baroque practice, though not slavishly. I don’t think she played on gut strings, but she did draw attention to the baroque bow, its convex shape, which produces different sounds at its heel and toe from those at the middle.
And she reminded us that all movements but the opening Praeludium had their origins in dances, but that most had moved some distance from being suitable for dancing.
Megan also drew attention to her use of ornamentation, an essential element in baroque performance. The effect, evident from the beginning of the Praeludium, was of playing that was more fluctuating, more suggesting the unevenness of human breath, in tone and dynamics; these characteristics also led the player to greater freedom of tempo, responding to the shapes of phrases as well as the hints implicit in her ornamentation.
She invited us to hear the next movement, Allemande, as song rather than dance, and the combination of a very slow pace (I’d guess around crotchet = 40 rather than the more common 55 or 60) and fluctuating rhythms left that in no doubt. It was also an opportunity to notice the generous acoustic qualities of this high-gabled church that enhanced the sustained lyrical quality of the movement. Her ornaments sounded as if written down by Bach himself.
The Courante ran a bit faster than I expected, and Megan’s baroque interpretation meant a certain irregularity, even jerkiness, of rhythm, but there was no loss of beauty in her tone and clean articulation.
Many movements of the cello suites have attracted film makers over the years; the Sarabande gained some fame among connoisseurs when it was used on the sound-track of Ingmar Berman’s last film, Saraband. Megan approached it scrupulously, slowly, exploring its melancholy character, in a tempo that was almost too unvarying; she used no ornamentation, but she varied her dynamics artfully.
The two Gavottes offered a lively contrast, in the first, perhaps over-emphasing the first beat in the bar and passing up some of the phrasing details. The second Gavotte involved much fast fingerwork, very accomplished, but lacked the last degree of clarity.
It was a bit like her speech which was inclined to be too fast and not always clear.
Introducing the final movement, Gigue, she set our minds at rest by saying she was not striving for authenticity above all, but just to have a good time, and that was clear from the tumbling, fun-loving variety that avoided monotony.
She filled the last few minutes with an equally accomplished performance of the Sarabande from the second suite.
Not only does Megan Ward show impressive talent as a violist, but she has also a talent for talking intelligently and interestingly about things.