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The Art of the Cello

May 27, 2008

Nothing about cellist Lynn Harrell's two all-Bach recitals last week in Grace Cathedral could be called ordinary, except for his insightful virtuosity. First and most strikingly, those performances of J.S. Bach's six highbrow Suites for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007-1012, were presented as part of the four-month jazz festival, titled the 9th Annual SFJAZZ Spring Season. Then too, the vast space of the cathedral atop Nob Hill seemed an unlikely venue for solo cello music. To my surprise, this worked.
Harrell played three Suites each evening: Nos. 1, 3, and 5 on Thursday, and Nos. 2, 4, and 6 the following night. I particularly wanted to hear whether Harrell had found some kind of magic solution to the hideous problems within No. 6 in D major. As it turned out, that piece proved to be the highlight of his Friday program.

Harrell played the wig off the piece, as if it were just another brilliant romp, and the audience in the packed cathedral gave him a rousing, standing ovation. Then, in a charming gesture to the presenters, he played an unaccompanied version of Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood as his encore — and that, too, most stylishly.

We don't have exact dates for the composition of Bach's Suites, but it is known that they were written in his early days in Cöthen. The best guestimate is 1720. They were fostered by an amateur cellist, who likely was never able to cope with them, for Bach set out to write a kind of didactic study that progressed from the relatively simple Suite No. 1 in C Major to the white-knuckle demands of No. 5 in C Minor — which calls for false tuning of the instrument ("scordatura") — and to the even more difficult No. 6. But when a player can deal with all six Suites, he has mastered the art of cello playing.

Each Suite is a bit longer than its predecessor, each gradually becoming more demanding of the fingers and endurance of the performer as it moves along. In the case of the Sixth, the technical demands are compounded by the fact that it was written for a five-string cello: the normal four strings (C, G, D, and A), plus a higher E string. So the cellist today has to make do with four strings while coping with a piece written for five.

Harrell played all of the Suites well, while tending to emphasize the special character of each one. His was not a one-style-fits-all approach, and blessings on him for that.
Rhythmic Freedom
Bach was uncommonly skillful at extracting brilliance from minor keys, especially the usually dour D minor. His Second Cello Suite in D Minor offers both moods: brilliance, along with expressive seriousness. Harrell leaned toward a freedom of rhythm rather than metronomic accuracy. Bach's Prelude came off like an improvisation: Hell take the bar lines. When Harrell reached the large, slow Sarabande, he played it very slowly indeed, with several Romantic touches in terms of altered dynamics. I was a tad startled at first, but it gradually dawned on me that this made perfect artistic sense.

Then there's the Fourth Suite in E-flat Major, the jester of the series. Instead of the usual minuet movement, Bach shifted to a mildly rowdy bourrée. Harrell totally changed his approach for this Suite, tending to underline the jokes with heavier accents and even the occasional use of agogic accents (that is, extending the downbeat by a second) during the fast dances.

And indeed, many of the tempos seemed fast, particularly for the Gigue finale, which whipped along as if pursued by a flight of gnats. That's new to me, but again, it worked to brighten the first part of the recital with a flashy conclusion. Still, that was likely the most controversial performance of the program.
Sheer Artistry
Following the intermission came the whopper, the Sixth Suite in D Major. That Harrell played straight to the page, observing rhythmic values with nary a hint of rhapsody. He accomplished this gripping account with sheer artistry, adding savvy accents and carefully layered dynamic flow.

The fifth Gavotte movement, the most famous section in all the Suites, came off as a thoroughly refreshing experience. For a brief folksy touch, Harrell played a few bars directly on the bridge supporting the strings, which added a little rasp to his tone. I found it somewhat difficult to keep from nodding my head along with the rhythmic pulse — it was that powerful a presentation.

True, the acoustics in Grace Cathedral, with its long echo, are less than ideal for such music. Fast passages tend to fog over, piling up one note on its siblings. On the other hand, the mind began to adjust as the evening progressed. The acoustical lag was ever present, yet less troubling to the ear after the first 15 minutes or so, at least for me.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.