Remarkable journey into Bach's cello suites

The six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach - like his Partitas And Sonatas for solo violin and his 24 preludes and fugues for keyboard - are the pinnacle for unaccompanied instrumental music.

They were last heard over two nights at the Esplanade. On Tuesday evening, German cellist Jan Vogler performed all six suites in a single sitting, in a highly anticipated sold-out concert.

The deep scholarship and exploration that Vogler applied in his 2013 recording of the Bach suites was evident in the concert.

In the early stage of recording the cycle, he kept strictly to the bowing indicated on the earliest known facsimile of the score - transcribed by Anna Magdalena, Bach's second wife - playing with no vibrato and no variation in tempo in the dances.



    Victoria Concert Hall/Tuesday

However, by the time the cycle was finally recorded, he allowed himself more flexible bowing and greater freedom in his playing.

The opening Prelude of the first suite was taken "straight" - in a brisk tempo, with clean bowing and few excesses. The dance movements were consistently rhythmic, with plenty of drive in the faster dances.

Playing on a 1707 Stradivari cello with a modern set-up, metal strings and modern bow, Vogler produced a clear and wonderfully resonant low and middle register, beautifully measured application of vibrato, with a strong, penetrating but occasionally strident top register.

The fifth movement of each suite consists of a pair of dances - minuets and bourrees or gavottes - with the second dance acting as a calmer middle section to the more energetic instances of the first.

Throughout the evening, Vogler cleverly minimised tempo changes between the dances, but applied his remarkable technique to effect shifts in tone colour between dances I and II.

He approached each suite with subtle differences in mood and articulation. There was increased depth and concentration in the second suite, especially noticeable in the tricky courante, while the third suite was played with the greatest freedom in dynamics and range in voicing, topped off with a soul-searching Sarabande.

Following the intermission, Vogler described how he viewed the suites instead as a journey of two parts, each comprising three suites, written in major, minor then major keys.

In the second half, his playing once again reflected this, with the additional element of re-tuning of the top string from A to G in the fifth movement (on the composer's instructions), which brought a much more pensive, thoughtful sound to the suite.

Scholars believe that Bach intended the final suite to be played on a five-string "piccolo" cello, with an extra high top string.

This is rarely done in live performances, making this suite a handful for the player, who spends considerable time with fingers on the upper part of the fingerboard.

Even Vogler's undeniable virtuosity was tested in this suite and there were times when it felt that the extra string would have been useful.

Nevertheless, he fully brought across the joy and triumphalism in this suite and a mighty applause greeted the close of this remarkable and most rewarding musical journey.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Remarkable journey into Bach's cello suites'. Print Edition | Subscribe