The Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble, a Cambridge institution, began the 2019-2020 academic year with a cello(s) recital in the Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church on the campus of Harvard Law School, pairing perennial favorites with less common offerings: three of the Bach solo cello suites shared the stage with three-cello trios by Giacobbe Basevi Cervetto (c. 1682–1783), an Italian composer of Sephardic Jewish extraction who lived the second half of his enormously long life in England.
Timothy Merton, the director and founder of the group and Jennifer Morsches, the assistant artistic director, played baroque instruments from the middle 18th century, while Phoebe Carrai, the director of the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra played one built in 1690; all 12 strings strings were gut. In Boston, period instruments and performance ranges from edifying to intriguing to affected to fetishistic. This recital in general provided a good example of the first, even if it included some of the usual drawbacks of centuries-old instruments, namely the occasional squeak or unintended high note. This comes with the territory, however, and it did not mar the evening.
Morsches opened with Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor for cello solo, a fine way to sober up an audience that had walked through a warm and breezy summer night to reach the venue. The Prelude presents a rolling, arpeggiated brood that ends with a series of somewhat tense chords, all the more haunting because they’re “rolled” or arpeggiated, as we would say about a keyboard. The strong ritardando Morsches gave them, though, enhanced the effect. Still she avoided playing the movement as a Chopin nocturne.
One might object that the tempo of the Minuet I & II went a wee bit fast and that of the Gigue a wee bit slow. I find that is often the case with minuets, especially in symphonic movements (especially in the Mozart 40th), where people play them like scherzos. I admit that in a tense, energetic minor-key minuet it can be difficult to control oneself, and Morsches very nearly did. In the same way, the skipping ascent to the final quarter note of the Gigue (ever so slightly drawn out, as is usual) would have thrilled the audience more if taken a bit faster.
Parts of Cervetto trios were inserted among the Bach. After the Suite No. 2 we got the Allegro of his Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major, an extremely conventional sonata-form movement. But the later Cervetto material revealed more the character of hidden gems.
I approve of the decision not to begin the concert with Suite No. 1, which can summon up car commercials or B-movie scenes where the famous Prelude has been appropriated. Merton took the slower, plunging approach to this one without overdoing the crescendo and the big intervals in the last five or six bars. He played the Minuets here quite well, phrased and articulated nicely. In the difficult Gigue, however, things seemed to go slightly off the rails, or at least threaten to do so, and Merton let out a shower of creaking and moaning as he barreled to the end of the movement.
Then we enjoyed the Vivace (or Allegro II) from the Cervetto Trio No. 4 in C Major, which seems also to exist in a score for three cellos and a harpsichord but was here offered in its strings-only version. This is a very diverting piece, quick and lively, forcefully correcting the middling impression of Cervetto’s oeuvre the audience received from the earlier selection. It also seemed an excellent choice on which to go into intermission, which found the audience in high spirits.
Everyone having returned to his pew, Carrai assumed the stage and, in the third Bach suite, delivered the best performance of the three solo segments. She was the most in control of her instrument, the most discerning in tempo, and by far the most engrossing. The Courante sounded at moments on the verge of slipping out of her fingers, and mostly at a little less than mezzo forte, so that we almost had to lean in to hear it, all of which made a very compelling display.
For the closer we had Cervetto’s three-movement Sonata for Three Cellos No. 6 in C Minor. The last movement, comprising two strikingly different minuets, made the best impression in composition and in execution. One could imagine how that would soon lead to the minuet and trio structure standard in classical symphonies. Overall it felt fresh and new, as if the musicians were enjoying the original excitement of the composer in creating that contrast.
Some fairly minor defects aside, we enjoyed a pleasant evening of cello music. I expect the ensemble will hit its stride with its next performance, a Baroque montage Thanksgiving weekend.