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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Concert Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Carter Brey Plays the Bach Cello Suites.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Carter Brey and friend at Holy Lutheran Church.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic
Johann Sebastian Bach' Six Suites for Solo Cello are the core of that instrument's repertory, works that may have been designed to instruct and educate players on that still relatively new string instrument. Each consists of a Prelude followed by a matched set of dances in different style. But considering the length of each work and the serious instrumental challenges that Bach presents in each of the six Suites, the playing all of them on one program is a rare event.

On Monday night, April 1, this was the task of New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey, in his second complete traversal of the Six Cello Suites at the Holy Lutheran Church on Central Park West. (The first concert was on March 28.) Both concerts were part of the New York Philharmonic's ongoing music festival The Bach Variations.

Mr. Brey has been a star cellist since winning the Mstislav Rostropovich competition in 1981. After an extensive career as a touring soloist, he joined the New York Philharmonic in 1996. He is known for his aristocratic playing, usually at the fore of the cello section, although he still plays the solo parts im concertos. These concerts mark his public debut playing the Suites.

For these concerts, Mr. Brey increased his own level of difficulty, playing the six Suites on two specially constructed "baroque-style" instruments, with sheep-gut strings and a wooden button in place of the traditional end-pin. (The Sixth Suite, composed for an unknown instrument Bach called the violoncello piccolo, was played on an instrument with an added high E string.) If that wasn't enough,  Mr. Brey decided to play the works with a convex bow modeled after those used in the 18th century.

From the first notes of Suite No. 1, problems were apparent with this period setup. The gut strings proved difficult to keep in tune, and susceptible to balky notes. Elegant phrases sound rumpled, missing the legato that is usually heard in these pieces. in the opening phrase of the first Prelude, the notes pinched like a runner with a calf cramp. With the most familiar phrases of the entire cycle marred, this was not a good beginning.

The cello’s tone improved as Mr. Brey moved into the series of dances that complete the Suite, his bow skipping nimbly from string to string in the complex, courtly rhythms. He found lyricism in the Second Suite, the darker register giving the soloist room to maneuver through the lyric pages of the central Sarabande.

After a short pause, Mr. Brey launched into the Third Suite, producing stunning effects with his bow and stopping frequently to retune the temperamental strings. For the Fourth, he had to make considerable adjustments as Bach wrote that piece in the difficult key of E♭ Major. The physical strain of playing with the cello clenched between his knees did not seem to affect the quality of his performance, especially in a tumultuous Courante filled with technical challenges.

The Fifth Suite is a black tone painting, using the mournful timbre of the cello to somber effect. Its slow, reflective Prelude paves the way for the grim, even sardonic dances that follow. Mr. Brey played these ground-breaking movements with passion and unflinching clarity. Collectively, this was the strongest part of the evening.

The final Suite featured the five-string instrument, with the extended upper range that should ideally make performance easier. However, this performance was marred by a whole new batch of squeaks and technical problems for Mr. Brey.  He overcame these with technical finesse, playing the difficult double-stops and contrapuntal passages with raw nerve. One ca only imagine if these performances were given on his regular instrument, how stunning the results might have been.

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