On Sunday, June 6, the 2499th concert of the William Nelson Cromwell and F. Lammot Belin Concert Series at the National Gallery of Art, which is concluding its 62nd season this month, featured Latvian-born cellist Mischa Maisky (shown at right) playing three of the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J. S. Bach. Two Ionarts critics were there and heard somewhat different things.
by Charles T. Downey
Having arrived at the National Gallery, without a reserved seat like some lucky critics who were also there, it became clear that it might be difficult to get a seat for this concert. I staked out a place to stand along the far wall of the West Garden Court, with that rarest of all things here, an unobstructed view, between two of the massive columns, of the performer's bench. Since I was alone, I did not dare to leave my spot, which other concertgoers were already eyeing covetously, to get an extra chair. Shortly before the concert began, one of the ushers—merciless martinets who patrol the hall with a critical eye—saw that my placement did not conform with their approved seating plan. Fortunately, another spectator decided to give up her extra chair, because she was able to move closer to her friend in another section, and the seating gods decided magnanimously to allow me to stay. This was lucky indeed because, as I discovered at the concert's end, about 50 people without seats had been forced to listen to an echo of the concert from "the lobby," the sculpture hall that leads into the West Garden Court.
Mr. Maisky is one of those superstar performers, in the tradition of 19th-century virtuosi like Liszt and Paganini. This reputation is certainly deserved, but what leaves me cold in this sort of player is the trappings that come with the fame. On a superficial level, this would be those trademark silk blouses, "That 70s Show" flaired trousers, and Mafioso gold neckchains, which made Mr. Maisky look like Yanni with a cello and an afro, or an extra for Saturday Night Fever. That aside, the real problem with the superstar performer is the temptation to make big bucks by releasing one of those very popular recordings with crossover appeal, to which Mr. Maisky has succombed (Cellissimo and Meditation, for example) as has just about every performer of the same exalted level. I have no problem with performers making a profit from their appeal to more mainstream audiences, but you are what you eat, or in this case the danger is that your playing may begin to resemble what you play. It is not simply that this performance was un-Baroque in character, which it most certainly was. The excessive and often grotesque rubato applied by Mr. Maisky destroyed the rhythmic vitality of some of the dance movements, and this changed the focus of the performance from the intricacies of Bach's late Baroque stylized refashioning of the concept of the suite to the individuality of a superstar player. I find the former fascinating, and I could care less about the latter.
The tone was set by the first four movements of the first suite Mr. Maisky played, BWV 1007. There is some justification for Mr. Maisky's personalized style in the prelude movements to the suites. These movements fit into a genre of instrumental music dating back to the Renaissance—identified by titles like praeludium, intonazio, intonation, toccata—in which a solo instrumentalist improvised a flashy piece to set the tone (and often a tonal or modal center) for a choral piece or set of dance movements that followed. Ironically, of the three preludes Mr. Maisky played in this concert, that of the third suite, BWV 1009, which seemed to have been most clearly composed in the style of a toccata, was played in the least improvisatory and most rhythmically regular way. The prelude of the first suite was played dizzyingly fast but without any perceptible regular pulse, as was that of the fifth suite. The latter piece is one of Bach's transformations of the French ouverture, the sort of instrumental music that composers around Europe admired in the work of Lully, who was known for keeping the players in his orchestra in strict rhythmic unity by pounding a cane on the floor. It was a form that fascinated Bach, since it appears in various guises in his instrumental works, such as the "Sinfonia" of the second keyboard partita and the sixteenth variation of the Goldberg Variations.
However, other than an optional first-movement prelude, the suite is a series of pieces intended to accompany specific types of dancing. While the concert's program notes (from Columbia Artists, which manages Mr. Maisky's appearances) acknowledge the dance-oriented "genesis of the suite form," they go on to state the following:
The resulting dance movements in Bach's suites bear little resemblance to the simple eighteenth-century dance tunes that were actually used to accompany dancers.While it is true that Bach probably never intended for anyone to dance to any of the movements from his cello suites, the uniformity of the dance movements of Bach's instrumental suites (as well as those of other composers) indicates that we would be justified in believing that Bach at least still had in mind the steps and movements of the dances in question. (On this topic, you should read Tim Janof, Baroque Dance and the Bach Cello Suites, about his experience of having a Baroque dance specialist, Anna Mansbridge, actually try to dance while he played the suites.) Now, real dance music may not have much to recommend it as serious music, but the main function that it provides—and this is just as true for the Minuet as for the techno music that pulses in dance clubs today—is a unifying rhythmic certainty. In fact, the social function of dance steps that one can recognize and participate in, and thereby be in harmony with one's society, was just as important for the Allemande, named for an unspecified German girl, in the Baroque era as it was for the Macarena, named for a Spanish girl, in Europe and America at the end of the 20th century.
For me, the best moments of the program were the movements where Mr. Maisky played with a dancelike rhythmic regularity. In the first suite, this happened first in the two Menuetts and especially in the dynamic, concluding Gigue (the most jig-like of the three he played). By contrast, Mr. Maisky played the Courante of this suite so fast that the sixteenth notes blurred together meaninglessly, but then he had to slow down to leap down to the bass notes, requiring a manipulation of tempo that destroyed any sense of a dance. The Sarabande's tempo was so irregular that the final note of each section, which should be a half-note, I think (the emphasis in the triple-meter sarabande was on beat 2), was held for a different length each time, and for a full two beats only the last time. In the third suite, played second, the Allemande was graceful and stately, the Courante was much more regular and therefore exciting to hear than in the first suite, and I really felt like getting up to dance to the two Bourrées, which were delightful. Only the Gigue disappointed, with a handful of squeaks or mistuned notes and a rushed character that felt unnatural.
Speaking of the "few scratches and squeaks," these things happen, but the accumulation of such imperfections over three suites gave me pause. The worst of the night came at the end of the otherwise bouncy and not at all "rigorous" (as the program notes put it) Courante of the fifth suite. This may be the most mysterious of the six suites, and Mr. Maisky's performance emphasized the recondite character of the Sarabande and the directionless second Gavotte especially. However, with almost no pause, he launched himself into the dashing Gigue, which he chose to play with full repeats of both sections. It was one of the most exciting moments of the evening. After much encouragement from the crowd, Mr. Maisky was coaxed to play another Sarabande, which as I recollect it, was from the second Suite, BWV 1008, in D minor, whose somber first measures I took for a gamba piece by Marin Marais. It was the most satisfying sarabande of the concert.
J. S. Bach, Unaccompanied Suites for Cello, with Pierre Fournier (1977)
by Jens F. Laurson
After three weeks of summer lull at the National Gallery of Art's Sunday Concerts, this perfectly beautiful Sunday eager listeners started lining up at the Gallery's West Garden Court entrance more than two hours before the concert was to begin. By 6:30, no one without a reserved seat was admitted into the building anymore. The reason for this excitement had a name: Mischa Maisky, one of the foremost active cellists of our times, was to be heard in what is the most exciting music for solo cello, the unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach.
With his gray-white curly mane and goatee, heavy round gold chains, and appropriately exotic clothing, he was the first artist I have seen at the NGA concerts who was slightly larger than life. A ruffled, untucked light steel-blue shirt and black satin trousers framed this entrance, giving him an air that was half Numidian warrior-king, half Gandalf the Grey with his beautiful, petite Domenico Montagnana cello in front of him. Of course, the excitement about hearing the fiendishly difficult Bach suites, nos. 1, 3, and 5 (out of six), did its share as well.
Little needs to be said about Mr. Maisky himself. A household name in classical music, a student of Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, a friend of and frequent collaborator with Gideon Kremer and Martha Argerich, his discography contains several outstanding examples of his craft. Anecdotal evidence has it that Mischa Maisky recently rerecorded the Bach suites because he didn't recognize his own versions when they were played in a record store he was in.
With concentration and an always lyrical element, Maisky started energetically into Suite No. 1, in G major, BWV 1007. Given the amount of cellists who have tackled these works on disc since Pablo Casals's path-breaking efforts (he had been the first artist to perform as well as record these pieces in their entirety), it is easy to forget just how difficult they are to play, and more so from memory. Or as a professor of mine once told his (philosophy) students: "Only when you know just how difficult it is to play just one note on the piano exactly right can you even begin to have an idea how difficult it is to play the unaccompanied cello suites by Bach." The brio and sure-fingeredness (barely a pitch off) with which Maisky bowed Bach from the cello, especially towards the end of Suite No. 1, in the Gigue, was spellbinding.
Perspiration or dictates of style (or both) had Maisky, after generous applause, come out in a new shirt—similar in style, but canary yellow. A fine backdrop at any rate for Suite No. 3, in C major, BWV 1009, with its tension-laden and fast-paced opening Prelude. While not creating as explicitly the impression of two instruments being at work, as do Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Suite No. 3, too, makes one wonder how one bow and five fingers can do all that work. Along with increased efforts of physical expenditure, Mr. Maisky's sweating became a good indicator of the intensity of the performance before Suite No. 3 fell into its more lyrical tone with the Sarabande. Mischa Maisky did not just play this movement slow, he played it with such pressing gravity that the long notes burst with tension, stretched, and held until the very point of breaking, before the first Bourrée gave the suite a spring back into its step. The fast, scurrying Gigue, the last movement of the suite, left no listener unmoved. Harmonically more interesting, it is an apt climax, broodingly wild in Maisky's hands, rather than "cheerful" as the program notes felt about it.
Suite No. 5, in C minor, BWV 1011, was given in a black outfit, Issey Miyake like the other ones, a shirt with pointedly extended shoulders and bell-bottom light trousers, faintly reminiscent of a bat. The first note of the suite burst onto the scene like a shot as Mr. Maisky, now starting to resemble more a semi-sane, semi-evil, and musically obsessed count of a fake eastern European fiefdom, continued with his
idiosyncratic but still perfectly coherent and self-explanatory account of this Mt. Parnassus of the cello œuvre.
This was all-out Bach, with none of the noble patrician understatement of a Pierre Fournier, but an emphasis on every rhythmic and contrapuntal element, an exaggeration of the music, but never to its detriment. In fact, Mischa Maisky's playing added several dimensions to the performance. Free-wheeling, emotionally charged, verifiably un-Baroque, this was not a recreation of Bach but a distillation of his flavor. "Bach," Charles Bukowski said in one of his poems, "is the most difficult composer to play badly because he made so few spiritual mistakes." Perhaps that is the reason why Bach's music lends itself to such interpretation with ease. Instead of becoming too much for the musical palate, the renditions of Bach by the likes of Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, or Mischa Maisky are exciting and—although on occasion controversial—ultimately tasteful. They may all not be the first choice for everyday Bach listening, but their absence would mean that no one would want to listen to Bach every day in the first place. It is a great gain in understanding and enjoyment of any and all Bach, or indeed music, that is incurred from these insights.
Bach already has an undisputed place in the 21st century, but after Mr. Maisky was finished with him, it became almost painfully obvious how much of a presence JSB has or ought to have in our times. The double-stop-filled first Gavotte of Suite No. 5 was just one example of "Bach—the urgently contemporary." Astounding interpretation on top of genius made almost 300-year-old music come alive, perhaps ironically in a museum of all places. Neither the visible and at some points audible exhaustion of Mr. Maisky, nor a few scratches and squeaks could deter from that impression.
Enthusiastic applause and four curtain calls (a National Gallery Record?) convinced the artists to give an encore, and so he played the Sarabande from BWV 1008. Heavy vibrato gave the slow movement its intensity and tension all over again, made it so biting and electrifying that, to me, it felt like Wagner for solo voice. (Though I wish not to do injustice to either composer, or incur either composer's fans' wrath.) What a highlight just one Sunday before the 2,500th concert at the Gallery. Words fail. A joy!
J. S. Bach, Unaccompanied Suites for Cello, with Pablo Casals (1936–39)
J. S. Bach, Unaccompanied Suites for Cello, with Mischa Maisky (1985)
J. S. Bach, Unaccompanied Suites for Cello, with Mischa Maisky (2000)