Those inclined to universalize have often pointed to the nearly uninterrupted performance tradition and seemingly unending appeal of Bach as evidence of his greatness. As part of her three-day Bach Festival, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt was joined at Berkeley's First Congregational Church last Thursday by German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. The concert included all three of Bach's Gamba Sonatas, plus one of the solo suites for cello and a keyboard partita. Their performance revealed yet another of the many faces of Bach, one that is well-suited to a contemporary audience.
Disclosure: As a cellist, I was trained by Robert Sayre, who had been a student of Piatigorsky at the Curtis Institute in the early 1940s. The Bach whom I first became acquainted with was Romantic Bach. That Bach loved continuous vibrato, hated the use of open strings, and generally favored an extremely legato line. I broke up with Romantic Bach when I became attracted to his distant cousin, Historically Informed Performance Bach. HIP Bach seduced me with his Gamba Sonatas, so much so that I actually gave up the cello for the viola da gamba. Not knowing much about what happened to Bach in the intervening years, I was quite surprised at the approach taken by Hewitt and Müller-Schott.
Since they were performing on what we now call "modern" instruments — that is, a concert grand piano and a "modern" (really Romantic) cello — I was predisposed to thinking that I might meet Romantic Bach once again. Maybe I missed him. Instead, I met a Bach quite unfamiliar to me. Rather than take full advantage of her concert grand, Hewitt played very lightly, with almost no pedaling. Her articulation was extremely short and sharp for the most part, as if she might be playing a harpsichord.
Müller-Schott rarely used vibrato; in fact, I have heard gamba players use more. His long notes were characterized by a messa di voce
technique familiar to acquaintances of HIP Bach. Their tempos were generally on the quick side, and they made little use of the rubato and rallentando that were hallmarks of Romantic Bach.
Another Side of Bach
In other words, Hewitt and Müller-Schott presented the audience with Thoroughly Modern Bach. Combining some of the axioms of historically informed performance ("thou shalt not begin a trill from the main note," whether or not that's true) with 20th-century tendencies toward quicker tempos and a healthy dose of modernist purity, Hewitt and Müller-Schott's Bach embodied the concerns and trends of performance practice in the early 21st century.
Perhaps the most pleasing part of the performance was Hewitt's incredible sense of rhythm. This was most clear in the Partita No. 4 in D Major. Although her fundamental rhythm was absolutely metronomic, she was wonderfully flexible within the beat. It was just the right amount of stretching against a beat hierarchy, making her performance most satisfying.
Her interpretation of the Allemande was particularly engaging, with just a hint of wistfulness and beautifully long legato lines. It made me think that maybe the shadow of Romantic Bach still lives on. Hewitt's jaunty rhythms also provided a fresh take on the last movement of Gamba Sonata No. 2 in D Major.
Müller-Schott gave a generally fine reading of the Suite No. 2 in D Minor. His performance was clean, crisp, and precise. Although there was not enough struggle for my taste, and he often took a tempo so fast that it obscured the underlying rhythms of the dance, he was ultimately convincing.
Hewitt and Müller-Schott are both extremely gifted soloists. I just wished that Hewitt had brought out a little bit more of her soloist's nature when accompanying Müller-Schott in the sonatas. The three sonatas that Bach wrote for viola da gamba and keyboard are unusual in that they include a completely written-out keyboard part instead of the bare-bones framework of a basso continuo line. Treated as an obbligato instrument, the keyboard is thus just as important as the gamba, maybe more so. Hewitt seemed to approach the pieces as if she were playing pure accompaniment. It must have been a conscious choice to subdue the voice of her instrument, especially in the bass.
This tendency was perhaps most noticeable in the Adagio of Sonata No. 3 in G Minor. But first, I have to make a further disclosure — it was with this movement that HIP Bach won me. The keyboard part in this movement is incredibly simple, with only two voices. A third simple voice is provided by the bowed stringed instrument, thus creating a delicate, three-voice texture. When a texture is so delicate, it is easily destroyed. Usually, this movement goes wrong because one voice sounds too loudly; in this case, the bass voice was not strong enough.
In the end, this is all a matter of taste. Thoroughly Modern Bach has a certain appeal, particularly when presented by two such fine musicians as Hewitt and Müller-Schott. But a small part of me does miss Romantic Bach.