A few hours ago, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in recital with the odd-numbered solo Cello Suites by J. S. Bach.
As a surprise interlude, Queyras spoke from the stage and presented a snippet of Leonard Bernstein as an overture. This homage, he said, was in honor of the Bernstein centennial and also being in Boston, a place so closely identified with Bernstein. To that end, Queyras (perhaps also with the input of George Steel, the museum’s Abrams Curator of Music) began with the cadenza-like, improvisatory opening fantasia sequence from number three of Meditations from MASS. In MASS this music is performed by flute and serves as the second Introit to the Epiphany; in Meditations it is scored for cello with percussion, then full orchestra joining in for the balance of this third tripartite interlude. Queyras gave us the cello line from this Meditation. Devoid of percussion, the cello line here becomes an imprecise memory, incomplete. Beginning from silence and stillness, Queyras played it as a ruminative introspection, reflective and contemplative, absent any declarative value the percussion gives this full Meditation in performance. Knowing the original placement in MASS, this phrase takes on added weight: here, it announces the epiphany of Bach, in fascinating if truly anachronistic ways.
Bernstein bled into Bach, as one fantasia heralded another. Beginning with the resonant opening G major chord, we voyaged into the first Cello Suite here rendered as intimate, ruminative, at times stately. Time dilated and contracted as Queyras rendered phrases in agogic fashion, added ornamentation (especially in repeated sections), and consistently made us hear this sacralized music anew. This is not historically-informed performance practice, but Queyras plays off of these practices and the history of viola da gamba literature. Scalar runs became riffs out of time, arpeggios flew by at quicker speeds so that we heard more fully-fleshed chords with that harmonic richness. This was individualized music, nodding to established dance forms but not hewing to their strict tempi.
Acknowledging the unique venue which is Calderwood Hall’s cube, Queyras turned his chair 90° before embarking on the third Suite, now facing a new audience. Again, this was an individualistic take on the music throughout. The Prelude here is a tension between scale and turn, demonstrating how a simple ornament can make music of a sequence of notes; for Queyras the scales and arpeggios receded, time contracting to foreground the shifting harmonic structure.
Following a ten minute pause, we heard the concluding work on the recital: Bach’s fifth Cello Suite. Calling for scordatura, the cello’s top string lowered a whole step facilitates the c minor harmonies of this suite. Here a more stately tempo obtained, both for the French Suite structure of this Prelude and for the greater presence of the lower register and the weightier lower strings. The fugato recalled the pacing, sonority, and speed of organ fugues. In this suite, as throughout, there was a reserved, judicious use of vibrato.
Jean-Guihen Queyras is one of my favorite living cellists. I heard him perform the third Cello Suite in Avignon during their festival some four years ago. I find his performances draw on solid technical mastery and are endowed with keen musical sensibilities and scintillating insights. These are performances reflecting one person’s journey and engagement with the music. There is strength of conviction and there is freedom in liberating performance from strict adherence to the score. On a strictly personal level, I wish his Bach tempi were slightly slower to allow the harmonies and melodies more breathing room. J. S. Bach’s music is inventive and frequently improvisatory (especially in the preludes to these suites) but they also unfurl in time. Agogic dilation served to mark harmonic changes and seeming strangenesses in the score; sometimes dwelling on seeming normalcy is also welcome.
I am grateful Queyras is sharing his ruminations on Bach with us and feels free to do so in such an idiosyncratic fashion. It brings us anew to well-known music and provokes our own fresh and idiosyncratic insights.
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