Delving into details of Bach's Cello Suites



Khachatur Khachatryan, cello

The Chamber, The Arts House

Last Friday

This has been a bumper year in Singapore for the unaccompanied string music of J.S. Bach. So soon after Kam Ning and Loh Jun Hong's shared performance of all six Violin Sonatas And Partitas at The Arts House, the same venue hosted young Armenian cellist Khachatur Khachatryan in the six Cello Suites.

Composed between 1717 and 1723 and conceived as didactic exercises, these were virtually "lost" until Spanish cellist Pablo Casals revitalised their performance in concert.

Hearing all six - 36 movements in all - in one sitting was a daunting prospect, but in Khachatryan's hands and resourceful mind, the 160-minute concert proved an unqualified triumph.

Playing on a 1914 Pedrazzini cello that belonged to his grandfather, he crafted a well-rounded and voluminous tone that spelt pure pleasure.

Opening with the familiar Prelude of Suite No. 1 In G Major, his handling of its sequence of arpeggios showed he was no slave to the metronomic beat. That the music was allowed to breathe naturally was refreshing.

The printed score merely acts as a blueprint and, beyond the notes, Bach did not leave directions or dynamic markings. Thus, it is up to the performer to determine how the music should unfold and flow. Khachatryan had an excellent feel of its epic scope, yet was able to delve into finer details, such as including or omitting repeats, as well as adding accents, grace notes and trills as he saw fit.

Every decision of his made sense, also translating into the sequence in which the suites were performed. Instead of progressing by catalogue number, he followed the relatively short and congenial Suite No. 1 with the technically demanding Suite No. 4 In E Flat Major, with its awkward octave leaps in the opening Prelude. The contrasts were immediately felt, later escalating to the big crunching chords in Suite No. 5 In C Minor, where the deep sonority of tragedy loomed.

Most of the movements were dances and Khachatryan had the innate feel of pulse and movement etched in his musical psyche.

From slower Allemandes to pacier Courantes, the beat shifted accordingly and, in the paired dances of the fifth movements (Minuets, Bourrees and Gavottes), there was sometimes a feel of jazzy improvisation that seemed improbable, but sounded idiomatic.

The slow Sarabandes were the spiritual heart of the suites and he luxuriated in spacious vistas without showing too much reverence. The concluding Gigues were rollicking affairs and what could possibly follow that of the valedictory Suite No. 6 In D Major?

Khachatryan received vociferous applause and offered as an encore Sicilian cellist-composer Giovanni Sollima's Lamentatio, almost a summation of the hijinks that had come before.

Not enough of Bach? Next month, violinist Tang Tee Khoon and British cellist Colin Carr will relive the sonatas, partitas and suites - all 12 works - in two concerts at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Delving into details of Bach's Cello Suites'. Print Edition | Subscribe