Seattle may have allowed the centenary of Elliott Carter, America'ês greatest living composer, to pass uncelebrated, but on a cold and blustery evening last Saturday about 700 early music enthusiasts turned out to listen, knowledgeably and with enthusiasm, to three of J. S. Bach'ês Suites for Unaccompanied Cello played in Town Hall'ês Great Hall by Jaap ter Linden, the Seattle Early Music Guild'ês distinguished visitor from the Netherlands.
Though dominated and inspired by dance forms (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, and Gigue), these suites for cello are amongst the more austere of Bach'ês compositions. They do not offer the drama of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, which include fully worked out fugues as well as the famous chaconne. The cello with its lower register and thicker sound does not lend itself so easily to sustained writing in multiple voices. The predominant effect is melodic though the melody is often supported by extensive chordal writing, and Bach creates an extraordinary variety and depth of harmonic expression with limited textures. In the prelude to the fifth Suite in C minor he even manages to create the impression of a fully worked out fugue though writing only in one voice — so suggestive is the single musical line that the listener can without too much difficulty imagine the other parts around it.
Some years back, at Meany Hall, a cellist performed all six Suites in a single concert. Admirable though this was as a marathon, it taxed the audience'ês concentration somewhat towards the end of a long evening. Jaap ter Linden more prudently gave us three of them, starting with the first in G major, going on to the Suite in C minor already mentioned, and concluding after the intermission with the exuberant Sixth Suite in D major.
Ter Linden is a musician of manifest accomplishment and integrity, as well as a platform personality with considerable charm. In a lecture before the concert, he talked eloquently of the unique role these suites play in the cello repertory and of how he has lived with them and they with him over half a century since at the age of nine he first learned the G major suite. He gave fascinating illustrations of how the different suites require different instrumental character, with the A string tuned down to G for the sombre Suite in C minor, and a five-stringed instrument necessary for the rich and expansive textures of the sixth Suite. He also conveyed a deep reverence for the music, saying that it represents a Platonic ideal which can never be wholly realised in any actual performance.
Maybe so, but his own playing left nothing to be desired in terms of technique or interpretation. His intonation is well nigh perfect and when speed and agility are called for they are there in full measure — witness the clarity with which the fast passage work in the courante of the sixth Suite came across. He uses light bowing but produces a good solid sound. He respects fully the classical form and character of the music but subtly and naturally shapes the music into sentences and paragraphs, so that the alterations of pulse are felt as natural progressions, not as imposed rubato or pulling the music around for effect.
All in all it was a fine evening, consistent with many that the Early Music Guild has provided over the years. Upcoming concerts in their International Series include what promises to be a fascinating visit by the famous Italian company La Venexiana who will perform Monterverdi'ês masterpiece Orfeo at the Moore Theater as well as visits by the Tallis Scholars, Piffaro, and Ensemble Caprice. If you add the Guild'ês Discovery Concerts, and their new 'êFirst Tuesdays Series,'ê they give some 15 concerts a year.
Early music is well served and well supported in this city. If there were also a 'êNew Music Guild,'ê we should perhaps have opportunity to hear some Elliott Carter.