The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: J.S. Bach’s six cello suites get a fine reading as a cycle from Benjamin Whitcomb | August 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below), who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and who performs with the Ancora String Quartet as well as with other ensembles, is a talented man on a mission. (Check out his website: http://www.benjaminwhitcomb.com/)

To raise money for the music scholarship fund at UW-Whitewater, Whitcomb is giving 10 performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous cello suites. So far he has lined up eight dates, the most recent one (Number 4) being last Friday night at the First Unitarian Society’s stylishly modern Atrium auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams).

The boyish Whitcomb has played each of the six suites as a solo work on a recital program. But for this event, he performed all six suites as a cycle. Before intermission came suites 1-4; after intermission, suites 5 and 6. As an enthusiastic and concise, accessible and friendly explainer, a relaxed Whitcomb (below) helped the audience to understand the various keys, dance forms, tempi, technical matters, similarities and contrasts of the six suites. He wisely interspersed his comments between suites, not between movements.

To make the complete cycle do-able and enjoyable as a single evening of about two hours, he also cut out all repeats. Now, that may be anathema to period-instrument and historic-practice fans. But it is hard to imagine the toll that taking all the repeats – and therefore doubling of the time — would place both on listeners and on the performer otherwise.

Besides, to my ears, it was refreshing to ear the suites without repeats, which is how the most Bachian Glenn Gould recorded his famous readings of the partitas and suites for keyboard (piano in his case). I found that leaving out the repeats did two things I very much liked.

It forced you to be attentive and focused, so you didn’t miss anything the first time through, thinking you could always catch it when it comes round next. And, even more important, it eliminated some of the frequently overdone and distracting ornamentation (pianist Andras Schiff comes to mind) that accompanies baroque repeats, allowing more of a singing line to emerge.

That isn’t to say I would always prefer to hear the suites without repeats. But it is a ear-opening and welcome change to do so.

Besides, Whitcomb’s approach seems to have benefited from the early music movement. His tempi were very upbeat, his vibrato very restrained and his sense of voice leading well developed. Fans of the Baroque would be satisfied with the Whitcomb’s energetic approach was as non-Romantic and it was non-period.

The suites are not only among Bach’s most famous works; they are also by far the most popular works ever written for the cello. The most amazing part of their history is how, composed in the 1720s, they languished undiscovered and unknown for two centuries until the early 20th century when Spanish cellist Pablo Casals accidentally – and miraculously — discovered them on a used bookstore. Even then, many experts and cellists took them to be technical exercises rather than genuine compositions. And you can sort of understand why, when you look at the tightly packed manuscript score (below), which looks a lot like Hanon and Czerny among others.

How wrong that view is quickly became apparent as Whitcomb, boyish and dressed in black, worked his way through the preludes, allemandes, courantes, gavottes, minuets, gigues and other movements, 36 in all. There is abundant beauty and contrast, drama and pathos, in these works. Not for nothing did famed metaphysical movie director Ingmar Bergman use the dark and doleful Suite No. 2 in D Minor as a soundtrack to “Though a Glass Darkly.”

Except for the fifth suite, which uses an awkwardly restrung and retuned cello, Whitcomb played from memory. That’s a lot of notes to keep in your mind and fingers. But he faltered or had only minor memory lapses a couple of times, always recovering convincingly and then proceeding on. His tone was rich but transparent, not inappropriately Russian thick, and his readings and accents made inevitable sense.

The crisply contemporary architecture and acoustics of the hall proved an ideal place for the performance. Whitcomb hardly seemed isolated, even though he was alone on the stage. The hall’s wood and other hard surfaces provided a resonance that enhanced the cello’s volume. And even the lines of the austere Nordic design (below) seemed to match the intersecting lines and counterpoint of the music being played.

One small disappointment was the relatively small, though extremely attentive and enthusiastic, audience of 50 or so (below). Perhaps Whitcomb could perform the cycle again (Number 9 or 10?) in the same venue during the fall or winter, when a larger crowd would be available and by which time word would get around.

Both the music and the performance certainly merit a wider hearing.

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Posted in Classical music

2 Comments »

  1. Whitcomb is an incredible musician and musical thinker–his recording of Bach and Gabrielli is a constant in my playlist. Wish I could have been there to hear this wonderful performance.

    Here’s the CD link to iTunes:

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/bach-cello-suites-1-3-5-gabrielli/id265965166?uo=4

    Comment by FraKathustra — September 19, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    • Hi FraKathustra,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      You would have loved the Bach performances.
      There were absolutely revelatory moments.
      I will have to check out his Gabriellii.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 19, 2011 @ 10:01 pm


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