Emmanuel Music gave the Boston musical community a splendid present by presenting all six Bach cello suites by different cellists in free midday concerts on successive Thursdays in Back Bay’s intimate Leslie Lindsey Chapel. Performing between February 26 and April 2 were Rhonda Rider, Shannon Snapp, Joshua Gordon, Michael Curry, Beth Pearson, and Rafael Popper-Keizer. A capacity audience listened carefully to every one. (I heard all but one of the performances; regrettably, I could not attend that of Shannon Snapp.)
Each of the players has a different style, but they all are good in their own way. Rather than review each performance, I will mention some of the highlights.
Rhonda Rider began the series with a masterful performance of the Eb Major Suite, the “odd one out” because of its key. Composer John Harbison, in introductory comments, informed us that the e-flat ‘cello suite has a different sound, because there are no “open” strings in the key of E-flat, meaning that it lacks the sonority of the other keys.
Joshua Gordon supplied his own fascinating comments to his thoughtful D Minor Suite. One of intriguing features of these suites is the lack of Bach’s manuscript; all that we have are the hand-written copies by Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena and his student Kellner. Phrase marks, tempo markings, and bowings are absent, leaving it up to each performer to interpret. Gordon coins the term “Stemmaphobia,” which he defines as “fear of stemma [transmission of a text] or of being considered inauthentic as a result of choosing the less authentic or less authorative source when considering how to interpret a given text.” Gordon had no such fear in his slow, détaché Prelude. Time stood still for the long, final chords.
Michael Curry performed the sunny C Major Suite. An audience member commented at the end that he played “from the heart,” but the Baroque dances were not sufficiently characterized.
Beth Pearson (founder of Apple Hill Chamber Players) played the C Minor Suite, perhaps the most difficult of the cello suites. She offered a slow “Prelude,” fast “Courante, and beautiful “Sarabande.” Her handling of the second “Gavotte,” with its running notes, nicely preserved the double upbeats characteristic of this Baroque dance.
Rafael Popper-Keizer ended the series with a brilliant performance of the D Major Suite. (A couple of visitors from the Netherlands who happened upon the concert were transfixed.) Harbison told the audience that it was written for a five-string cello, with a high E, but is usually played on a modern four-string cello, as it was in this performance. As the various suites in turn exhibit, this particular “Prelude” was really a toccata, but well shaped by the player. The “Allemande” was slow and lengthy, whereas the “Courante” was fast and virtuosic. The harmonically rich “Sarabande” was extremely moving. Popper-Keizer’s final ringing low D at the end of the “Gigue” was a triumphant way to wrap up the series.