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Four Strings Sound Six Suites


Colin Carr (Bealovega photo)

Serious solo cello combined with trademarked ocean views for a sensuous feast Thursday night at Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s fifth and final week. Nature abetting, Cellist Colin Carr delivered Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in a marathon extravaganza Thursday at Shalin Liu.

The master’s six examples, which all follow the form of a prelude with five movements inspired by courtly dances, have been beloved since Pablo Casals brought them from the practice room to the concert hall and the recording studio in the early 20th century. Individually, they constitute yardsticks by which many cellists measure their worth, and in the last few decades, a surprising number of artists have presented all six in a highly challenging single span. I heard Yo-Yo Ma deliver them with an hour-long dinner break at Carnegie Hall, in the 90s. Lawrence Lesser gave the set in a marvelous reading in Boston in March 2011 (reviewed here) and Alisa Weilerstein will play them at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series in February 2019. Listening to all of them can sometimes be too much of a good thing; it’s a substantially longer program than most classical concerts these days, and there’s no variation in sonic texture besides the lonely cello, much as Bach’s dense two- and three-part textures show the amazing range that can be accomplished with that one instrument.

The six figure prominently in Colin Carr’s repertoire; he has performed all six at least 20 times in the 2017-2018 concert season alone. I reviewed Carr in the 2nd, 4th, and 6th in 2014 (here), and the virtues I encountered then were very much in evidence on last night. Carr can pull off astonishingly fast tempos effortlessly, rendering knuckle-busting passagework like the two-octave arpeggios of the Prelude of Suite No. 4 with ease. His supreme technique gives him the freedom to hold together long complicated phrases that many more mortal cellists can’t manage without breaking their arcs. Carr’s pacing allows him to remind us of the suites’ roots in Baroque dance; his Courante movements have the brisk, steady flow that evokes the translation of the movement title (“running”). And with his bouncy, jig-like ebullience, Carr is better than anybody in the final Gigues.

Carr will subtly speed up and slow down within a phrase, creating an ebb and flow that evokes the way great singers shape tunes off of the breath. And I haven’t heard a cellist who is better at handling double and triple stops on the cello. The arc of the strings makes it hard to sound three notes and weight each note equally, but in Carr’s hands, chords ring out with a deep, satisfying resonance, over and over again. And as impossible as all of these technical feats are, I heard something new. Carr takes all of the repeats in the binary dance form movements. This time, he added tasteful ornaments with each repeat. In the Fifth Suite, Bach asks that the highest of the four strings be tuned down from A to G — a technique that adds resonance and permits a number of chords that are otherwise not possible.” There were longer breaks surrounding Suite No. 5, I suspect so that Carr could put his instrument into and out of that tuning.

Not everything went flawlessly. I marveled in 2014 at how Carr managed three suites with nary a false note or stray tuning. It might be that the intimate resonant acoustic of Shalin Liu Hall leaves less room to hide bowing slips or wobbles of intonation. And I detected a dip in energy that compromised the first three suites. But Carr swept all doubts aside in the second half. Suites 4, 5, and 6 each pose unique technical challenges, from the massive octaves of Suite No. 4 to the scordatura tuning of No. 5, to the polyphonic, impossibly high No. 6 (written originally for an instrument with another higher string). Carr responded by picking up the energy and pulling off even more stunning musical fireworks. And the floor-to-ceiling windows at Shalin Liu Performance Hall once again made for a compelling backdrop. The bright blue skies at the concert’s beginning paired nicely with the easy sunniness of Suite No. 1. The fiery rainbow of sunset playing with cumulus clouds over the Cape Ann seascape illuminated the ever-popular Suite No. 3, and the darkness of early evening suited the melancholy sound world of Suite No. 5 as well. But don’t take my word for it; the Rockport Music staff live-streamed the concert on Facebook, and for now at least, you can see and hear the performances here.

The 37th Annual Rockport Chamber Music Festival winds up this weekend. The Dover Quartet and Artistic Director Barry Shiffman do quartets and quintets of Ullmann, Mozart, and Dvořák on Friday, the classical comedy duo of Igudesman and Joo takes the stage on Saturday, and the Emerson Quartet presents Beethoven’s Op. 130 (with the revised Finale) and Schubert’s great Cello Quintet (joined by Colin Carr) on Sunday.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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