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At Breakers, Bach Blazes Forth


Zlatomir Fung delivered a stunningly radiant, resonant, and joyous account of Bach’s solo Cello Suites for Classical Newport Wednesday evening in the Breakers Mansion, the perfect acoustic for both the music and the instrument. Though a spate of recordings, live-streams, and recent performances of the solo suites have joined a long line of pre-pandemic renderings, the offering from this young Tchaikovsky gold medalist runs far ahead of the pack. The combination of the Breakers vibrant acoustics, Fung’s authentic approach and intense devotion to the music, and the stunning resonance of the 1717 David Tecchler instrument he played let Bach’s genius take on an almost orchestral immersiveness. The artist’s light and rapid finger-work evident in those improvisatory-styled passages and ornaments normally associated with Bach’s virtuosic technique on keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord or the organ, coupled with a most natural sense of the musical line and awareness of how tones dissolve and evolve into one another offered each piece its own distinctive personality, yet the whole fitting together seamlessly within each suite and together as an entire set.

Fung used very little vibrato, instead allowing the stark beauty and resonance of each note to shine forth, offering the kind of clarity the music demands, and the natural acoustic properties of each tone to prevail, with only a rare and occasional “warming” of the note where appropriate. Fung’s acute awareness of what is nominally termed “historically informed performance” extended not only to matters of tone, but also to articulation, delivering Bach’s basic non-legato style of articulation in a way that never sacrificed the artistry of the musical line, while offering contrasting smooth, velvety passage-work and mindful attention to those passages marked with slurs, thus creating a natural panoply of sounds, structures, and rhythms.

In the generally light and airy prelude movements,  Fung provided foretastes of things to come, as in the manner of a storyteller about to embark on a great journey, setting the stage with “Long ago, in a faraway place and time….” In his remarks, he opined that the prelude of the first suite in G Major, in fact, did this not only for its own suite, but for the entire set of six. Performing the suites out of their numerical order, as is often done, the second offering was the Suite in E-flat Major No. 4, which for Fung both in his remarks and his performance, set up a dynamic of tension between the easy-going, regular arpeggiated eighth-note chords, alighting and holding on the second lowest note of the instrument, from which emanated a rapid and dynamically contrasting passagework which then kept “interrupting” the regular flow of the arpeggiated passages. There followed the two suites in minor keys, No. 5 in C Minor, with its plaintive Saraband, the only movement of its kind not to have chords, its single notes stark and poignant in their tragic beauty, and then the second suite in D Minor, setting up a cyclic scenario that perhaps mirrored Bach’s own life, the youthful simplicity of the G Major, confounded by the darker and more dramatic set of three (E-flat, C Minor, D Minor) and finally concluding with the two most exuberantly joyous suites No. 3 in C Major with its expansive and sonorous Prélude, setting a sound covering a broad range of the cello’s compass and frequently employing chords of four strings (called quadruple-stops), and the final No. 6 in D Major, covering an even greater range. Perhaps written for an instrument with 5-strings rather than four, this piece “went beyond” in more than one sense, as Fung explained it contained Bach’s only written dynamic in the entire set, suggesting the contrasting loud and soft dynamics of a Baroque concerto-grosso, and again using rich four-note chords, but this time often in the highest registers of the cello.

Overall Fung balanced imaginative and creative playing with solid historical scholarship, creating a distinctly personal set―historically secure yet refreshingly new. One could hear suggestions of gamba playing, of rustic village dance drones and stately court processionals, most of all the enigmatic persona of the composer himself, who was often criticized for blending elements of French and Italian as if he could not distinguish the one from the other, but in fact, managing to turn the tables around on his critics by showing time and again, his absolute mastery of both styles and his deliberate and mindful choices in combining them and contrasting them, often within a single work. Fung captured all of this with such awareness, sensitivity, and perfection, revivifying Bach. Fung artfully channeled the master’s whimsy, dancing, playfulness, awareness of nature and of sound, and sensitivity to the joys and sorrows of humankind. Plaintive, philosophical, and eternal, the music and this performance could also revel in the jollity of a jig.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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  1. Thanks for this fulsome review. This YouTube of the First Cello Suite is worth a listen and look!

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — July 15, 2023 at 11:38 am

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