in: Reviews

November 13, 2011

Cellist Doane’s Supple Bow, Captured Sounds

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The String Masters Series at Boston Conservatory presented Steven Doane in a solo cello recital in Seully Hall on November 13 2011 at 5 pm. The full house heard J. S. Bach, Suite No.1 in G for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007; John Tavener, Threnos for Cello Solo; and Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite No.1, Op. 72. The program showcased Doane’s skills as a cellist, especially his supple bow hand, to great effect.

For the Bach Suite, the movements followed one upon another with only a breath between movements. Doane presented a personalized response to the music in an approach combining some aspects of historically inflected performance practice, such as the fade-on held notes rather than the more modern sustain, with post-romantic virtuosic technique, noticeably the liberal use of vibrato. The Prelude opened at a fast tempo – about that of Anne Gastinel on her recording of the Suites (as a quick post-concert survey of my several recordings revealed), which is faster even than Casals’s, long the benchmark for speed in this work. For emphasis, Doane deployed agogic accents and rubato. In the Allemande, Doane used a combination of short and long bows, the “over-bowing” reminiscent of Casals and the more Romantic school of interpretation; this brought out a couple of longer musical phrases in this movement. The Courante was a lively dance, while the Sarabande proceeded at a slower tempo than usual (closer to that of Maurice Gendron; perhaps a touch slower than that of Rostropovich). The Minuets alternated between the nimble first and the minor-keyed second dance; the second was remarkable for being reserved and light, not as dark as some readings. The final Gigue danced along at a lively clip. Throughout the Suite, Doane made use of an attenuated dynamic range, with a greater degree of variation on the piano end of the spectrum. He never achieved anything louder than a mezzoforte, whether by interpretation or current state of his instrument, I cannot say. He also used ornamentation liberally, more so than many other cellists performing these works.

Each cellist stakes much of her or his professional reputation on the individualized interpretation of the Bach Suites (not unlike violinists with the Sonatas and Partitas). Doane’s reading was a carefully crafted whole and elicited musical responses from the audience. It said much about him as a cellist, and so served as a personal testament: he is unafraid to combine different performance traditions to achieve a personally resonating interpretation of these works. I have commented on the more remarkable features of his reading. Additionally, I was struck throughout by his frequent use of a fast vibrato, which sounded at times almost like a trill. After the last generation’s revolution in playing Bach, I found this use of vibrato distracting. This statement may reveal more about me, my teachers, and my experience with this Suite than about Doane’s take on Bach; I record it here as one person’s reaction.

Before launching into Tavener’s Threnos for Cello Solo, Doane spoke a few words about the piece: written some twenty years ago for Steven Isserlis, it is based on Greek Orthodox chants sung during the interment of the deceased, and is a simple yet evocative work. Doane gave a performance of Threnos which was, indeed, simple yet highly evocative. He exploited a broad palette of sounds, even though the cello remained muted for the duration, and a varied range of vibrato, successfully capturing the dark sounds and resonances of the cello to offer a soulful take on Tavener’s work.

Following a brief intermission, Doane returned to offer a brief introduction to Britten’s Cello Suite No.1, Op. 72, and then perform the work in its entirety. Written for Rostropovich and first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965, this work begins with the harmonies from the end of the Bach Prelude from the first part of this recital (as Doane demonstrated). The Britten lasts about twenty-one minutes, with the canti forming the backbone of this suite. The Canto Primo: Sostenuto e largamente begins with G-Major chords, but the added ninth at the end of the first measure announces Britten’s distance from Bach. Doane made this canto sing resonantly; the Fuga: Andante moderato in his hands was a playful, pastoral movement. By contrast, the Lamento: Lento rubato was mournful, sounding like the musical equivalent of the various stages of grief (including rage).Canto secondo: Sostenuto brought the slow and melancholic return of the Canto Primo theme, now in a minor modality. This led, attaca, to the Serenata: Allegro pizzicato, recalling Spanish guitar music. Attaca again, this time to the Marcia: Alla Marcia moderato, which mixes harmonics, bowed col legno, and a theme played naturale, vigorously and bowed. The music recalls the earlier Fuga in rhythm and phrase. In his introductory remarks Doane commented on Britten being a pacifist and described this movement as a march of toy soldiers; this accurately describes his performance of this movement. With the preceding Serenata, I wonder if Britten had the Spanish Civil War in mind? If so, then the Marcia is even more strongly a meditation on the folly of war. Such dark thoughts find expression in the following movement, Canto terzo: Sostenuto, with its use of tritones to play between harmony and dissonance in a ruminative vein. The Bordone: Moderato quasi recitativo, with its droning “d” and haunting snippets of militaristic- or patriotic-sounding music softly joining in, tried to rise to some happier occasion. Finally, the Moto perpetuo e canto quarto: Presto, beginning with swarm of notes like flies, chased away the clouds of gloom and offered some rays of hope in a return to G Major. The Canto Primo returned in its singing glory, the swarming clusters of fast notes merging with it to form a single musical line. By the end of this suite, it is no longer clear whether the musical cell which begins this Moto perpetuo or the theme of the Canto Primo is the primary cell of the Suite as a whole. Doane’s performance was an original take on Britten’s music, not a repetition of Rostropovich’s recordings. Doane brought out more of the playful humor and more levity in this Suite; it made the angst that much greater in the bleak movements surrounding the Canto Terzo.

For an encore, Doane offered the Sarabande from Bach’s fourth cello Suite in E-flat Major, BWV 1010. This choice blended well with the programmed works and offered a wholly satisfying conclusion to a fascinating and masterful recital.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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