Scholarly and musical – Sergey Malov plays Bach

Bach on 13 strings

Bach: Chromatic Fantasy for solo viola, BWV 903

Suite no.4 in E flat, BWV 1010

Partita no.1 for solo violin, BWV 1002

Suite no.3 in C for solo cello, BWV 1009

Sergey Malov, viola, violoncello da spalla, violin

Expressions, Upper Hutt

Friday, 7 June 2013, 7.30pm

One might think that a recital composed entirely of unaccompanied Bach would not reveal the versatility of the performer.  In fact, it did.  The other thought is that it would pall for the audience.  Although I heard remarks afterwards from some audience members that they missed piano accompaniment, I don’t think this was a general reaction.

However, I don’t believe I have been to a completely solo violin recital before, nor one devoted entirely to one composer.  However, by using three different instruments, Malov was able to introduce variety to the programme.  (A member of the audience provided accompaniment by tapping his/her foot constantly.)

Sergey Malov, here for the Michael Hill International Violin Competition as the winner of the last competition in 2011, and to tour for Chamber Music New Zealand, is a consummate string player.  He disarmed his audience with a few well-chosen remarks (including about the cool hall, which was certainly noticeable to the audience, and must have been worse for him, given his less-than-full-concert garb and his need to keep his instruments and his fingers warm).

The opening work was a tour de force in itself, its virtuosic writing for viola full of variety and difficulties, appearing not to trouble Malov.  However, he is one of those highly competent and talented individuals who has to take on additional challenges.  Therefore he commissioned a reproduction violoncello da spalla (on the shoulder) to be made for him, the instrument having been revived in recent years in Belgium.

We were introduced to this instrument in the Suite no.4, so I spent much of the time in that item listening to the instrument rather than to the music per se.  I have not been able to discover the tuning that Malov used for the five-stringed instrument (hence Bach on 13 strings) that he employed for the two Bach Suites. An article in Grove indicates that it may have been C-G-D-A-e (i.e. e in the treble clef), which equates to a standard cello tuning plus an additional string tuned to e.  There is strong indication that some, maybe all, of Bach’s Suites for cello were written for the da spalla instrument, which is a much more ancient instrument than the modern cello.  With a strap over one shoulder and round the back of the neck,  and having the instrument’s back against the player’s body, looked slightly ungainly, being played with a baroque bow – as compared with the guitar,, which is held in a similar position, but is plucked.

I found the timbre of the lower strings somewhat odd, and not a particularly musical sound.  The higher strings did not have this peculiar timbre.  The instrument has nothing like the resonance or warmth of the violoncello we are familiar with, and I have to say that I prefer the Suites on the latter instrument – but of course this is what I am accustomed to.

The Suite was exquisitely played with skill and expression, the tempi and rhythm suitable to each dance movement.  It was followed, after the interval, by Partita no.1,  played on the violin.  Similar to a Suite, Partita, being an Italian term, names the movements dance movements by the Italian names.  The subtlety and nuance in the playing were remarkable, but it was vibrant too.  The Corrente particularly was incredibly virtuosic, as indeed was the Tempo di Borea (Bourrée).  It was fascinating to watch Malov’s long, lithe fingers in action.

The final work, Suite no.3, was again played on the violoncello da spalla.  This one is more familiar than the no.4, and was delightful to hear.  Lively melodies take the listener through the six movements.  The Bourrée was so sprightly I rather wished that there were dancers on stage to put the music into movement.  A friend in the audience told me she had once seen such a performance in a house concert.  Malov made the music dance with very rhythmic playing and variations of timbre, with frequent lifts between notes; the music lived and spoke.

To have the performer play three different instruments, and therefore use three different fingerings in one concert was astonishing.  It was certainly not only a technical achievement; this was an evening of great music-making.




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