Baching at the Moon – ‘Cellist Raeul Pierard at St.Peter’s on-Willis, Wellington

J.S.BACH – Six Suites for solo ‘Cello
Raeul Pierard (‘cello)

St.Peter’s on-Willis, Wellington

Friday 23rd November 2018

Long and involved stories or series of tales have always attracted me – I’m a sucker for sagas, an enthusiast for epics, a connoisseur of chronicles. In music there’s nothing I like better to involve myself with than something that covers a wide span of time, incident and characterisation. I’m a completist who’s in seventh heaven when about to embark upon things like Bach’s “forty-eight”, Haydn’s “Salomon Symphonies”, Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes” or Albeniz’s “Iberia”. I could go on, but don’t want to run the risk of getting side-tracked and losing my bearings……

Still, I mention these things because it seems to me that people are presently being encouraged in artistic matters to do the opposite to what I’ve just described – to skip in-and-out of encounters and experiences rather than cast themselves into the heart of things, body and soul, and especially so in music. One has only to tune into Radio New Zealand’s Concert Programme in its present form to experience the increased fragmentation of musical presentation that’s being served up as a kind of “standard” – lately, more often than not we get ”movements” rather than whole works and a preponderance of shorter pieces which suggests an inclination to merely “entertain” on the part of the powers that be, rather than to invite listeners to push back boundaries and undergo any kind of in-depth exploration.

I could go on about this trend as well, so that readers would soon give up on the prospect of my ever getting to the business in hand, that of reviewing a performance of all of JS Bach’s six Suites for solo ‘Cello – but what’s interesting in the framework of what I’ve just been talking about is the reaction of a number of people to my having gone to the performance of these works – things like “Oooh, that’s a LOT of solo ‘cello!” and “Didn’t it all start to sound like the same, after a while?”…… be fair, there were many comments of the “wish I’d been there” variety, as well…..

As far as the player, Raeul Pierard, was concerned there was obviously no problem, having been inspired by one of his teachers to make a point of regularly performing the complete cycle. Accordingly, Pierard had entitled his concert “Baching at the Moon”, equating the regularity of his performances of these works with the lunar cycle, thus calling each of them a “full-moon event”. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to link the two occurrences as different manifestations of life-forces, bringing together cosmic and human patterns of behaviour as a way of contextualising a significant kind of co-existence, Bach’s music speaking for humanity in tandem with celestial processes.

So, to the concert, given in the remarkably beautiful interior of the Church of St.Peter’s-on-Willis:  a number of things came to my mind as I registered work following work, movement following movement and phrase following phrase – first and foremost was the sheer intensity of the experience, by way of both the music’s amazing variety and depth. I had listened with the utmost interest to Raeul Pierard’s spoken introduction to his playing of these works, taking to heart several points he made which for me further “opened up” both the music’s structural and emotional content, one of them being that his feeling was that the music was “autobiographical”, especially when considering that Bach’s life had ample potential for both joy and sorrow, having two wives, one of whom died; and twenty children, ten of whom did not survive him. Of the six Suites, two of them are set in minor keys and result in “darker” sounds than the other four, while the works numbered as fourth and sixth in the authorised “edition” of the composer’s works are more angular and exploratory of expression than their major-key fellows.

Not that it’s possible to “date” any of the works, Bach’s own autograph manuscript of them being lost, the most ostensibly reliable copy being that made by Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife, with no details as to the origin of the works regarding time or place. The other three extant eighteenth-century copies are just as unhelpful, with further confusion arising from their differences, resulting in none of them being regarded as “the” authentic version. Instead, the ‘cellist wanting to play these works has a choice of over a hundred different “editions” offering different solutions to the discrepancies. It would have been interesting to have asked the cellist regarding “editions” and whether he had any particular “models” for his own playing style and/or interpretation (so many great names, from Casals onwards….) – however, I found myself at the end wanting to bring away the “sound” of the music in my head unadulterated by such detail, and so never got to actually talk with him…..

There being a smallish audience (the concert clashed with a sell-out performance of the Beethoven “Choral” Symphony from the NZSO that same evening!) Pierard invited all of us to sit up closer to him, freely talking to us at various places during the recital, but requesting that we restrain from applauding until the conclusion of each of the “halves” of the presentation – we actually got in first at the end of the First Suite and applauded, but no real harm was done! I could understand what he meant, though, and especially in the case of the minor-key works and those in the concert’s second half, where the act of listening seemed in itself a sufficient response to such sounds and the applause a superfluous, almost trite act juxtaposed with these evocations of something ineffably precious and timeless.

The First Suite’s opening allowed us to appreciate the St.Peter’s acoustic to the full, the instrument’s tones rich and focused, and “answered” by the surroundings in an enriching rather than confusing or blurring manner by an ambient glow. The Prelude unfolded under Pierard’s fingers with the utmost simplicity and natural-sounding freedom, followed by an Allemande which seemed to almost extend the opening with added whimsy and divergency, the repeat further deepening the explorations. These being “Suites” the movements were, of course, all dances of various kinds and nationalities (whose characteristics Pierard outlined for us), the following Courante rhythmically engaging from the very opening note, the trajectories impish and impulsive! Then came a Sarabande, a slow dance of (according to the ‘cellist) Turkish origin, one often given considerable gravitas by Bach in his various works, Pierard here bringing out the music’s meditative quality, the sounds having moments of deep wonderment. There’s usually a marked contrast with the following Minuet, though less so, here, the ‘cellist enabling the music’s “more than usual” circumspection of feeling, more poetic of motion than physical of impulse – as was the contrasting minor-key Trio section of the dance. A change came with the Gigue (English – “jig”), which was far more precipitate and impulsive in phrasing and overall movement.

From the very opening, the Prelude of the Second Suite seemed to suggest tragedy, with the three opening notes defining the mood and the following figurations exploring it. Pierard’s tone spoke volumes of eloquence throughout, especially in the piece’s second half where the intensity built to great depths of feeling before suddenly retreating, allowing the emotions some space to realign, the feelings as intense, though incredibly “inward” at the piece’s end. The Allemande brought a different kind of energy to what sounded like a purposeful journey, the Courante even more so with its vigorous phrases and its forthright display passages. Again, the Sarabande was played “con amore”, allowing the measures time and space to indelibly fix their phrases on the listeners’ sensibilities. This time the Menuet broke the spell, with purposeful, energetic playing at the onset on the part of Pierard helping to make really “something” of the shift to the major for the second Menuet. The Gigue was more angular and serious, using a drone in places to both “ground” the music and delineate the intensities with great characterisation, especially over the last few bars before the final ascent flung the music out into the cosmos with a defiant gesture.

After the grittiness of the Second Suite the Third came as a kind of bucolic relief, the drone-notes this time creating an earthy, pesante effect during the Prelude, while the figurations were made by Pierard into something organic and even theatrical at the end, involving elongated cadences and lots of trills! – in other words, quite an adventure. The Allemande here sounded almost like a rock-climbing exercise, delighting in scaling heights and plumbing the depths, Pierard conveying both the music’s vertiginous whimsy and its exhilaration. The Courante, too, was energetic and playful, the music featuring lots of antiphonal jumping about and “call and response”, with the second part even wilder and more varied in dynamics. This time the Sarabande was declamatory and theatrical, its repeat bringing more thoughtfulness and a touch more ambience, the lines drawn throughout with the utmost nobility.

Bouree made a nice change from a Menuet, the trajectory a bit freer and more spontaneous, less prone to seriousness. The contrasting minor-key section had a kind of absent-minded melancholy, wistful and attractive. The Gigue had one of my favourite “moments” in all of these works, an almost grinding drone voice creating a tense moment before the music nonchalantly skipped away and upwards, illustrating the composer’s sharp sense of humour and mastery of mood, the sequence here strongly played and wryly characterised.

Raeul Pierard compared the Fourth of these Suites to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” – something embodying both comedy and seriousness, light and darkness. To begin with we heard the Prelude’s gorgeously leonine tones, the music curiously “mirroring” the First Suite’s Prelude by a series of descending gestures anchored by the final note of each of the phrases. Breaking up the pattern were “flurries” of impulses at the music’s halfway point and again at the end. The Allemande brought playing that brought out the music’s inclination to swing and soar, in contrast to the somewhat volatile Courante, with its “scampering” figure that launched each phrase. But it was the Sarabande which, if anything, brought the “What You Will” feeling to mind – beginning with a long-breathed three-note harmonised declamation that dominated the first part, the movement’s second half then further darkened and intensified the discourse with increased “weight” from the harmonisations, relieved only by a wistful ascent right at the end. Quixotically, the Bouree played with our sensibilities with a four-note flourish instigating each of the dance’s phrases, both ascending and descending, then switching to a portentous, tongue-in-cheek Trio section. In the Gigue we got an almost outlandish “rolling-ball” juggernaut from out of whose path our sensibilities nimbly leapt as we listened, Pierard adroitly bringing out both the claustrophobic and exhilarating alternate characters of the music!

For the Fifth Suite (in the key of C Minor), the ‘cellist needed to retune his instrument, not because of intonation problems, but because Bach used a different kind of tuning for this work, the A string lowered to the note G (a practice termed scordatura). This was to enable certain chords to be played which, on a normally-tuned instrument, would be too awkward to manage. Straightaway this deepened the work’s general sonority, then further so by the composer’s use of harmonies weighted with lower notes – very impressive and imposing-sounding! In this case the Prelude was followed by a fugue, played here with amazing steadiness, implaccable in aspect, but with a lot of variation in dynamics and tone, Pierard’s bowing having a flexibility and variety that brought to my mind qualities associated with the voice of a great singer or actor.

The Allemande was also declamatory in style, but considerably more expansive in manner, after the Prelude, almost like an “inward” version of the music’s outer journey thus far. And the Courante seemed far more severe of mien than those we’d heard already this evening, with lots of dark-browed mutterings, closely-harmonised phrasings darkening the textures. The Sarabande had a different kind of austerity, the music single-voiced and alone in the wilderness, Pierard seeming very much at one with its dark, plaintive quality. After this almost confessional outpouring the Gavotte seemed almost reluctant to dance, the measures awkward and hesitant, with the accompanying Trio almost reptilian-sounding in its slithery, ground-grabbing aspect – one almost breathed a sigh of relief at the dance’s return! Even the concluding Gigue’s exuberance was muted, a kind of expiation of energy rather than a joyous outpouring, with almost uncomfortably intense moments – terrific playing from the ‘cellist here, alive to all of these possibilities!

Of course, what was retuned had to be “detuned” (untuned?), which the ‘cellist then did before tackling the final Suite of the six, in D Major. As might have been expected, the music’s mood was markedly different, with horn fanfares beginning the Prelude in a festive, out-of-doors fashion, and the SOUND of the music brighter and more open, with the player’s hands working higher up on the fretboard than in the other works – properly exhilarating, high-wire stuff! Bach wrote this work for a five-stringed cello, with an E string tuned a fifth above the A string – no wonder the music sounded brighter and more open! As well Bach provided the player with ample opportunity for display over the Prelude’s concluding measures, with sixteenth-notes flying everywhere! The Allemande was declamatory and long-breathed, Pierard making the sounds a pleasure to experience with his command of legato, everything very “viola-sounding” with its higher tessitura. After this the Courante sounded almost “normal”, with its high-energy racing moments, contrasting markedly once again with its companion, a Sarabande, whose opening section gave the ‘cellist a brief moment of uncharacteristically strained intonation, one which Pierard was “waiting for” the second, sweeter-toned time round! The higher-pitched lines gave the music a different kind of intensity which here seemed somewhat removed from the world of the first three Suites. The familiar Gavotte was played with the “scooped” chordings that imparted a colourful, almost “orchestral” character to the music, splendidly setting off the “fairground hurdy-gurdy”quality of the Trio, Pierard subtly softening the phrasing of the dance when the Gavotte proper returned. Finally, the Gigue seemed to return us to the fairground, with earthy energies abounding in the cellist’s ”caution-thrown-to-the-winds” manner, the music’s characterful rhythmic trajectories given their head in a performance that brought out the writing’s buoyancy and daring, leaving us properly exhilarated at the end – bravo!

We thought it was the end, but Raeul Pierard wanted to play us something completely different to us as a kind of “encore”, a piece composed by an ex-pupil of his who was at the concert, one Elise Brinkeman, who had written a piece called “Sad Song”. This was a long-breathed, resonating piece made up of chords of different colours and intensities, sounds which initially reminded me of great tolling bells via a long-limbed swaying rhythm that briefly allowed a melodic line to make an appearance before being overwhelmed by the return of the resonating chords. The figurations intensified, creating an anguished climax-point wholly saturated by the bell-sounds, before dying away and ceasing, more abruptly than I for one was expecting – perhaps part of the piece’s considerable impact was, however subconsciously, reinforced by this relatively rapid plunge into a silence. Though having little ostensibly in common with Bach’s work, the piece certainly had an epic quality which perhaps suited the reflectiveness inevitably generated by the former, and equated with a certain timelessness often attributed to the older composer. It made for an unexpected but powerful postscript, having a “quality” of its own,  and was thus an inspired choice with which to end a remarkable concert.

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