Eminent cellist Laurence Lesser’s truly august performance of all six Bach cello suites, BWV 1007-1012, this last Monday evening in March in NEC’s Jordan Hall, was a marathon. A marathon? Absolutely. To the familiar concept of Sitzfleisch we must stitch the six expressive syllables of Durchstehungsfähigkeit, an ability to staunchly stay the course for a very good while. Lesser began shortly after 7:30, inserted moderate pauses between each grouping of two suites, and raised his bow for the last time at 10:50.
Rarely in this life does one have the opportunity to encompass all of a signal landmark in music, performed to dizzingly high standards. This past Monday offered just that. During the course of a concise, insightful late-afternoon discussion in the conservatory’s tightly packed Williams Hall, thoughtful Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, Adams University Professor at Harvard University, prepared his intent listeners to grapple with the simple fact that Bach’s six Suites à Violoncello Solo senza Basso mightily surpass our ability to take them all in at once. Confronting these lengthy, beloved, extraordinary suites avec prélude engages the score reader and listener in an intellectual marathon on a vast scale. Parsing, or trying to delve understandingly into, the transcendent changes Bach rang on ostensibly well-worn period danse forms strains our analytical powers to the very brink. Listening to these related but deeply individual works is also unforgettably satisfying in ways that make the writer settle only for words that equal “transcendent” in power and sense.
Throughout, Professor Wolff hitched wonderful mnemonics to his salient points. His straightforward comments first scanned the overall topography of Bach’s many sets of suites, illuminating them with few and clear cross references. He then quickly settled onto an overview of the cello suites, limning the whole and looking more intimately into one of them. He chronicled our frustratingly incomplete access to primary sources, a revealing look into the scholar’s options, but also into his responsibilities. We heard, for instance, how extant autographs tally — and don’t — with their contemporary copies, and how later manuscripts incorporate corruptions and mistakes but also afford researchers indispensable glimpses of vanished originals, alternate versions, fleeting clues to ornamentation, and useful vectors on mystifying harmonic indications. We today derive great joy from the cello suites, and yet Wolff emphasized the composer’s likely didactical purpose in writing them. After all, he noted, when Bach wrote them — almost surely in Cöthen/Anhalt, ca. 1720 — he had been contracted as concertmaster and head of an orchestra, through whose excellent players he enjoyed daily contact with remarkable fellow string players. Can you imagine a more exacting and thorough teacher than thirty-five-year-old Bach, a performer and composer wholly aware of his abilities, and of his own potential for — pardon my modern phrase — raising the bar? Thanks be that the Cello Suites have survived the savage, random erosion of three centuries.
In describing Lesser’s performance, I consciously wrote “august.” As his students and colleagues know, he plays with a sureness of intonation and unerring forward motion that flies in the face of the long line of decades behind him. Applying the writer’s bow-by-bow scalpel to how each of those forty-two longish movements came off is pointless here, and it would also take a very long time. I will try, then, to communicate some of what happened and how it felt, using just a few signal examples to illustrate what was, after all, an extremely rich and stimulating evening for the large number of music lovers who were there. A quartet of high-end microphones was suspended above the stage lip in an effective array, so it is to be hoped that radio listeners will soon be able to enjoy individual suites selected from this Gesamtausführung of the six.
No other instrument calls for such sheer physicality as does the violoncello. For it to project musical ideas without the distraction of visibly effortful playing, the player must own such wholeness of purpose and mastery of the considerable mechanics involved that the intended ideas appear to emerge from a unified entirety, not from a hard-working person wrapped around a large instrument. Some of my awe at witnessing so integrated a unit as Lesser and his modestly scaled 1622 fratelli Amati this Monday evening admittedly stems from my lack of exposure to players on his particular level. As well, there is the matter of coming to terms with the actual sound of this specific instrument as played by this man. The sound we heard was full and rich, but it was not so much imbued with power as it was possessed of a tremendous integration of the all-important fundamentals with their attendant, utterly critical, lower overtones. Treble overtones were there, to unambiguously define pitch and attack, and to breathe a great array of tone color into the ample space of Jordan Hall, but this instrument, as played that evening, did not broadcast brilliance or sear the air with keenness. I have seldom experienced so balanced a cello sound, whose gently dark cast projected especially rich harmonies and favored the splendid dominion of fundamentals, rather than the dazzle of exciting but affectively impotent high harmonics. We absorbed burnished, deep bronze, rather than the glister of silver. Such sound, of course, reveals rhetoric and gesture with great directness and simplicity.
Lesser’s brief annotations state that he played the suites in published order “because I feel that shows not only the growth and mastery Bach achieved as he virtually created a new medium — solo cello — but also gives a dramatic entity to the group.” Each suite avec prélude expresses related metrical and harmonic language among its seven movements. As Prof. Wolff commented in the afternoon, the suites aren’t about melody per se.
To hear the directness of Lesser’s bowed statements was, for this listener, a commanding challenge to confront the pure score, to attempt to listen with minimal awareness of the performer’s persona. Quite the gauntlet to take up, this, for Laurence Lesser has presence. All of him was at the service of the music, though. We had to be there, on a similarly high level, too.
In the course of a recital, a range of dynamics can come to mean very little if it is either constantly too great or not big enough. Lesser never failed to communicate a consistent overall sense of a given suite’s dynamics, often using much the same playing level for most of the seven movements. His deliberate, unfussy departures from each suite’s central dynamic range thus acquired meaning. They signaled something. When they inhabited one extreme of volume for a longer time, they did so in the connotation of a powerful message as to Lesser’s idea of the intensity of what he was saying. His piano passages, especially, and the occasional lightning sallies he made down to minute but entirely audible details at ultra-quiet levels, caused visible frissons among all who were listening. His rare fortes, notably in parts of the fifth suite and the concluding sixth, were that much more gripping.
The notated double stops in the six suites are architectonic columns and firm architraves, solid iterations of what is hinted at in passagework or in adjacent, fast notes. Lesser’s unerring intonation and the great care he took to distance the big technical hurdles from his straightforward projection of musical thought permitted the countless double stops to evolve as part of the language of the evening, absolutely sidestepping display and flash.
Two moments stand in memory, searingly. These are the fourth movements of suites five and six, two of Bach’s greatest and most otherworldly Sarabandes. That of Suite No. 5 in c is undeniably fantastical on the page, a skeletal esquisse of rarified, transported strangeness. It harrowingly evokes Egon Schiele’s emotional palette, two centuries on in history, rather than any feelings with which we think the European mind of the Baroque era grappled. Lesser’s great spareness of execution afforded listeners an unfiltered look into a chill, edgy affect that nonetheless radiated keen emotionality — and great, mesmerizing beauty. The febrile, tender sarabande of the Suite No. 6 in D had a similar emotional intensity, but it hugged close the shadow of a surpassing warmth, almost tearful in its power. Lesser brought a gentle fierceness to it that was moving beyond words.
Our long, special evening, punctuated by its short and desperately necessary Sitzfleisch renewal, left me drained. Neighboring listeners confessed that they, too, had drained the wells of feeling and concentration completely. We were left with the awareness of a statement made by a musician of exceptional insight about six works that mean the earth to him, and whose incomparable worth is now yet more indelible for those who were there. Decades of listening down the different cello paths walked by the disparate likes of Casals, Bijlsma, Feuermann, Casadó, and others may prepare us to listen to the cello with some understanding. Laurence Lesser’s traversal of Bach’s six Suites à Violoncello Solo senza Basso, however, required this listener’s wholesale reinvention of the scale of expressivity and — do you know this word? — Nüchternheit (soberness, roughly) possible on the cello. A lifetime experience.
May the eventual broadcasts spread understanding of how wonderful and thoroughgoing this view of the Bach cello suites was.