Making his Boston début this afternoon, Sergey Malov brought his violoncello da spalla to the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall for a performance of the even-numbered cello suites of J. S. Bach.
The 35-year-old Sergey Malov is a multi-instrumental virtuoso. Born in Leningrad to a family of musicians, he began his studies on violin in his natal Saint Petersburg, continuing on viola at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg and the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin. He has won key violin and viola competitions, as well as receiving a special prize at the Bach Competition in Leipzig. In addition to violin and viola, he performs on baroque violin and on the violoncello da spalla. Given the similarity in playing, one might say it is not surprising that he performs on these four instruments; what is surprising, happily and pleasantly so, is that he does so to such a high standard.
For the past six years, Malov has been a leading proponent of the violoncello da spalla. Since at least 2007, the Hague-based luthier Dmitry Badiarov (whose instrument we heard today), has been studying, exploring, and crafting these rare instruments. (The curious can read his reflections in more detail in The Galpin Society Journal 60, April 2007, pp. 121 – 145.) Three to five such instruments exist, although specialists will quibble over which eighteenth-century specimens are examples of the viola pomposa, which are viola da spalla, and which are violoncello (piccolo) da spalla. Modern examples can be seen on Badiarov’s website. Today’s concert potently reminds us that instrument sizes and voices have been standardized more recently than we might think. (The viola still defies standardization with its plethora of sizes, so that practitioners speak of the length of their instrument. The French ensemble, Violons du Roi, retain the dessus de violon and haute-contre de violon, as heard at the courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. The effect is a different timbre. The German ArteTV clip HERE describes the instruments in more detail and towards the end offers sound clips for comparison. To speak in overly gross generalizations, the violoncello piccolo or violoncello da spalla is a smaller-sized violone, strung with five strings (it has an added high e-string), and played in a manor closer to a viola than to our familiar cello: as we saw today, it is not held under the chin but supported (in Malov’s use by a strap) in front of the shoulders. The convex Baroque bow makes an appropriate partnership.
During the talk and demonstration following the concert, Malov charted a history for this instrument that begins around the period 1620 – 1650 when gut strings began to be wound with metal wire, so there could be longer, higher-tensioned, lower-pitched strings. Much of this history is only incompletely reconstructed. Malov himself acknowledges the speculative nature but also quite enjoys his “toy.” To get a sense of the instrument and how it is held in performance, one could consult this 2012 video of Malov performing part of Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite What this video does not convey is the “sporty” or “racy” possibility of fast passagework. For Malov, the object is not to offer historically informed performances even if he performs on a reproduction historical instrument; he straddles the time periods of composition and performance with a foot in each century. He invites us to hear the music anew, and to appreciate it afresh.
The proof, it is said, is in the pudding. The sound of this violoncello da spalla is a captivating cross of the range of what we know as a violoncello, with greater resonance and sonority than our viola. Paolo Pandolfo recorded Bach’s Cello Suites on viola da gamba; the sound there is less resonant, although stylistically close to what we heard today; you can hear the Sixth Suite Prelude HERE. By contrast, modern-day violists tend to transcribe the sixth Suite from the key of D Major to G Major. For comparison, the late violist Lillian Fuchs played it in the original key and it can be heard HERE, in a close-miced recording; there is a reedier timbre in the upper register that may simply be inescapable given the instrument.
But all of this early history came after the concert. Malov took the stage with bow and violoncello da spalla for J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites 2, 4, and (following intermission) Suite 6 (BWV 1008, 1010, & 1012). Each suite has seven movements, a prelude followed by a set of dances. Malov played each suite as four movements: Courante led attaca to Sarabande and the paired dances (Minuet, Bourrée, and Gavotte, respectively) led attaca to the concluding Gigue. (This division into larger blocks makes sense, even if it is not often how this music is heard in performance or recording. Matt Haimovitz’s recording plays the paired dances attaca with the Gigue so gives a sense of this larger structural organization.) Throughout the hour-long musicking, Malov gave the preludes an improvisatory character, played with rhythmic fluidity, and demonstrated great technical mastery. Repeated sections benefitted from ornamentation. Arpeggiated passages were played less as a collection of notes to be heard individually (as we hear on modern recordings) than as rapid gestures where the notes, accurate and tuned, blend and blur into one phrase. The remaining movements in each suite had a strong dance-like character. Tempi were fast; the Courante in each suite especially flew. The music took on the aspect of post-Bach virtuoso violin writing; depending on perspective, this is either closer to the original dance forms that became concert music, or is moving cello music closer to violin music. Certainly the structure of the instrument with it shorter strings allows for faster note response and greater sonic clarity. The Prelude to the 4th Suite, as so often, sounds more 9/8 than 4/4 meter. Here the Allemande took on a more stately cast, while retaining some of the improvisatory mien of the Prelude.
In the 6th Suite, the violoncello da spalla really steps into its own. Written for a violoncello piccolo, this music is a fiendish technical challenge to those of us with four-stringed cellos. The smaller size of the violoncello da spalla and the fifth string render it easier to play, and the instrument’s timbre and resonance work more fully with the music than against it. This is not to say there are not masterful renditions of this suite on a cello; for Malov on his smaller cello, it just seems to come more naturally as music and not as notes (above and beyond the mastery of making it seem easy).
It is worth noting that throughout the concert I was struck by a more restrained dynamic range than our traditional violoncello (yet greater than one hears from a viola da gamba). Partly this is the nature of the instrument, and partly of the bow. There were variations, and effective use of echo-dynamic for repeated phrases, so the music was not without nuance. Still, a full-size modern concert hall may not be the ideal home for this instrument.
During the discussion following the concert, Malov demonstrated how the violoncello da spalla can be used to play more recent music, performing part of Ysaÿe’s Solo Violoncello Sonata, op. 28 (which Malov has recorded and you can hear on Spotify HERE).
On Sunday November 4th, Jean-Guihen Queyras will essay the odd-numbered of Bach’s Cello Suites in Calderwood Hall on a violoncello. It is a fine season to be in Boston, indeed.
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra