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Rhapsody in Bach

January 13, 2009

The cottage industry surrounding how to "properly" interpret J.S. Bach's beloved Suites for Solo Cello sometimes borders on the ridiculous. Like operagoers defending their most beloved divas with delirious fervor, many aficionados blindly swear by their own favorite approach to these remarkable works. Taking a "stance" has also become de rigueur for some professional cellists, driven by a need to clarify their interpretation of these works more self-consciously than with most other repertory (as if other works don't require equal artistic consideration).
In this light, it was pleasant to encounter a call for open-mindedness in the program notes for Tanya Tomkins' recital, a collection of three suites presented Saturday at San Francisco's St. Mark's Lutheran Church under the auspices of Voices of Music. Extolling the duty of performers to constantly maintain an open interpretive mind, Tomkins acknowledged that "it is impossible to settle on any single way of playing a Bach Suite," even as she offered up a compelling case for her own seductively intimate approach, which conveyed a delicacy and gracefulness that would melt even the most entrenched of listeners.

The chance to hear the suites on a Baroque instrument, akin to what Bach would have known, added to the evening's novelty. The thinner sound and lighter touch of this instrument may eliminate some of the lushness familiar to modern listeners, but with a performer of Tomkins' caliber such absence hardly matters. Her highly thoughtful renderings of each suite combined flawless technique, unerring intonation, and impeccable shaping of phrases with an uncanny ability to differentiate the various melodic lines of each movement, generating a sparkling array of colors and characters out of this single instrument.

Distinct overall moods linked all the movements within a given suite. Tomkins' reading of the Suite No. 1 in G Major was meditative and inward-looking, the famous opening Prelude's arpeggios dispatched with quiet reserve. Gentler slow movements were delivered with minimum fuss, especially the Sarabande, which conveyed a sense of effortlessness that doubtless requires great strain to achieve. In this vein, quicker passages in the Courante and Gigue lacked the showy flamboyance so commonly encountered in performance, yet Tomkins' stately command of every note and phrase proved equally buoyant in its own way.
Tantalizing Extroversion
If introspection was the watchword of Suite No. 1, careful extroversion characterized Tomkins' approach to Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major. Tomkins herself seemed to acknowledge a sense of reticence in prefatory remarks to her performance, cautioning the audience that her interpretation would be "not as rhapsodic" as what many might be used to. Such warnings aside, the virtuosic Prelude maintained a sense of boldness, its daring outbursts pitched in dramatic dialogue with moments of quiet intimacy. This sense of adventurousness constrained by decorum pervaded several movements, most notably the Courante, whose coquettish ebb-and-flow of phrases both intrepid and placid tantalized the ear.

Tomkins reserved her most rhapsodic playing for the Suite No. 5 in C Minor, arguably the moodiest set of the entire collection. She eloquently captured the gloomy, foreboding quality of the slow introduction to the French overture–style Prelude, an aura that lingered within the second-part fugue. The lugubrious Allemande was dispatched with an earnest sense of longing, in contrast to the heavy accents and gloomy intensity of the Courante. But the real highlight was the haunting, achingly beautiful Sarabande. In Tomkins' hands, this movement's simple melodic line was transformed into an aria of ethereal beauty, a lone cry in the wilderness that left the audience breathless.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.