In­for­mance anx­i­ety

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - — James M. Keller

The suc­cess of a con­cert is pred­i­cated to some ex­tent on how well it ful­fills the au­di­ence’s ex­pec­ta­tions. In this light, it was per­haps a mis­take to ad­ver­tise cel­list Zuill Bai­ley’s per­for­mance at St. John’s Col­lege (to an over­flow­ing au­di­ence) as a recital com­pris­ing Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach’s Un­ac­com­pa­nied Cello Suites Nos. 2, 3, and 4— and not prin­ci­pally be­cause, at the eleventh hour, he changed the pro­gram to Suites Nos. 1, 2, and 3. The first and third suites he did de­liver as self-con­tained pieces in in­ter­pre­ta­tions that were stim­u­lat­ing, if some­times un­con­ven­tional. Much of the evening, how­ever, was given over to ban­ter— about Bach, about the cello, about Bai­ley— and the sec­ond suite was dealt out piece­meal, re­duced to move­ment-by-move­ment punc­tu­a­tion within the per­former’s vol­u­ble com­men­tary.

The newly pop­u­lar, au­di­ence-friendly for­mula of “talk-and-play” can be an ef­fec­tive out­reach tool, and it is pre­cisely what one an­tic­i­pated of the ses­sion Mr. Bai­ley had an­nounced for the fol­low­ing morn­ing (also at St. John’s) un­der the rubric “My Life and Bach: A Mu­si­cal In­for­mance.” It seemed as if the two events might bal­ance each other nicely: one for­mal, the other ca­sual. In fact, they scarcely con­trasted at all, ex­cept that on Dec. 5, Bai­ley ac­tively in­vited at­ten­dees to pose ques­tions and, for the mu­sic, fo­cused on Suites Nos. 4 and 6, again with con­stituent move­ments re­tailed as is­lands sep­a­rated by rivers of first-per­son pro­nouns.

Bach’s six Un­ac­com­pa­nied Cello Suites oc­cupy a sum­mit of in­tel­lec­tual ter­rain in which the com­poser’s ex­or­bi­tant mas­tery of coun­ter­point is dis­tilled into some­thing just barely within the reach of an in­stru­ment that seems hardly born to the pur­pose. De­voted mu­sic lovers tend to lis­ten to them in a near-med­i­ta­tive state, and most cel­lists ap­proach their tech­ni­cal and ex­pres­sive chal­lenges with awe-struck hu­mil­ity. If mod­esty was scarce in th­ese per­for­mances, there was no doubt­ing Bai­ley’s sin­cere ap­pre­ci­a­tion of th­ese suites, which he has recorded for release in Fe­bru­ary 2010 (and his record pro­ducer, we were in­formed, was to­tally blown away).

He plays with a large, sumptuous tone, the prod­uct of an in­stru­ment built by Mat­teo Gof­friller of Venice in 1693, shortly be­fore cel­los were slen­der­ized by the em­i­nent An­to­nio Stradi­vari. Bass lines ac­cord­ingly emerged with un­ac­cus­tomed power, while up­per parts re­ceded in promi­nence and tonal clar­ity, yield­ing a dis­tinct cast to th­ese per­for­mances. Bai­ley is a gifted cel­list in the Ro­man­tic tra­di­tion. He draws from a broad, rich-hued pal­ette of tone and ar­tic­u­la­tion, and he pro­ceeds un­en­cum­bered by the stylis­tic in­sights of­fered by the rev­e­la­tions of the past half-cen­tury of his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance. The pre­ludes in each suite dis­played rhyth­mic free­dom without aban­don­ing struc­tural logic. The alle­man­des were hearty, and vis­ceral en­ergy in­hab­ited the min­uets, gavottes, bour­rées (ex­cept the one that died in the third suite), and gigues. Sara­ban­des were slowed down to a point where rhyth­mic beats be­came in­dis­tinct, and courantes erupted at break­neck speed. The courante of the sec­ond suite and the gigue of the fourth were pushed to spit­fire ve­loc­i­ties at which the in­di­vid­ual pitches scarcely spoke.

We must take Bai­ley’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­men­taries at face value— even the parts that dif­fered when the same sto­ries were told on suc­ces­sive days. So far as con­cerns the ac­cu­racy of his his­tor­i­cal com­ments about Bach, I must strongly ad­vise at­ten­dees to do their own fact check­ing be­fore pass­ing on his of­ten-imag­i­na­tive in­sights.

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