Dutch cellist performs memorable trio of Bach suites
Any concert can be special, but some events are predictably treasurable. Expectation can be disappointed, of course, but not Saturday night at Synod Hall.
Anner Bylsma's performances of 3 Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach were revelatory even for those who have heard him before. The Dutch cellist played this music in two previous Pittsburgh concert seasons at the Renaissance and Baroque Society and also has twice recorded all six Suites.
For more than a century, musicians have been trying to figure out how to play baroque and earlier music. Musicologists have worked at creating accurate scores and made plenty of suggestions about performance practice based on old texts.
Just two seasons ago, the German music publisher Barenreiter issued the 6 Cello Suites in a modern critical edition, plus a supplemental volume of commentary and reproductions of 4 different copyists' manuscripts as well as an 1821 printed French edition.
The enduring problem is that the composer's manuscript is lost. The earliest copy is by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, who was very accurate except for articulation — which notes are to be slurred. The value of the French edition is that it is reportedly based on the composer's score.
Articulation is just one of the ways the written music guides a performance, and Bylsma engages the music on the much higher aesthetic plane than musicology addresses. He expressed his viewpoints in conversation with the audience after the concert, and in a delightful book he called "Bach, The Fencing Master: Reading Aloud From the First Three Cello Suites."
He wonders about perception of music. For example, the music is actually titled "6 Suites for Solo Cello Without Bass." Do listeners create a bass line, even subliminally, when Bach has not even implied one• And what of the bass line that can be found in the patterns of the notes• Daran Alexanian showed how those patterns could be brought out more than a half-century ago.
For Bylsma, making sense of the music for himself will also help listeners through their memory. He's not afraid of depending on memory, because, as he said after the concert, "Without memory, we wouldn't even recognize a melody."
His performances Saturday night were intensely provocative and extremely free. Bylsma believes baroque music is more like speech than song. And he paced the music with extreme freedom. The rhythm of the dances he played was subservient to the expressive quality of the lines he created with minimal legato.
While Bylsma produced some screechy wolf tones and some poor intonation (particularly in the wide leaps of the Prelude to the 4th Suite), Saturday night's concert was an unforgettable event. It was an opportunity to journey through some of the greatest music ever written led by an artist of uncommon and uncommonly decisive wisdom.