Jean-Guihen Queyras

Cello

January 29, 2017, 4 PM

Music Room

Jean-Guihen Queyras is a French cellist with a vast repertoire stretching from Bach to Kurtag and Ligeti. As well as performing as a soloist, he is also a regular chamber music partner, often in a piano trio with Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust. This concert is a precious opportunity to hear all six of Bach’s Cello Suites, performed by a cellist whose recording of these works was welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm on its first release and is notable for the vitality and inventiveness of his interpretations.

PROGRAM:

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello in G Major, BWV 1007 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Menuett I
     Menuett II
     Gigue

Suite No. 2 for Solo Cello in D minor, BWV 1008 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Menuett I
     Menuett II
     Gigue

Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello in C Major, BWV 1009 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Bourrée I
     Bourrée II
     Gigue

Intermission

Suite No. 4 for Solo Cello in E-flat Major, BWV 1010 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Bourrée I
     Bourrée II
     Gigue

Suite No. 5 for Solo Cello in C minor, BWV 1011 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Gavotte I
     Gavotte II
     Gigue

Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello in D Major, BWV 1012 (1720)
     Prélude
     Allemande
     Courante
     Sarabande
     Gavotte I
     Gavotte II
     Gigue

Curiosity, diversity and a firm focus on the music itself characterize the artistic work of Jean-Guihen Queyras. Whether on stage or on record, one experiences an artist dedicated completely and passionately to the music, whose humble and quite unpretentious treatment of the score reflects its clear, undistorted essence. The inner motivations of composer, performer and audience must all be in tune with one another in order to bring about an outstanding concert experience; Queyras learned this interpretative approach from Pierre Boulez, with whom he established a long artistic partnership. This philosophy, alongside a flawless technique and a clear, engaging tone, also shapes his approach to every performance and his absolute commitment to the music itself.

His approaches to early music – as in his collaborations with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Concerto Köln–and to contemporary music are equally thorough. He has given world premieres of works by, among others, Ivan Fedele, Gilbert Amy, Bruno Mantovani, Michael Jarrell, Johannes-Maria Staud, and Thomas Larcher. Conducted by the composer, he recorded Peter Eötvös’ Cello Concerto to mark the composer’s 70th birthday in November 2014.

Queyras is a founding member of the Arcanto Quartet and forms a celebrated trio with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov; the latter is, along with Alexandre Tharaud, a regular accompanist. He has also collaborated with zarb specialists Bijan and Keyvan Chemirani on a Mediterranean program.

The versatility in his music-making has led to many concert halls, festivals and orchestras inviting Queyras to be Artist-in-Residence, including the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Festival d’Aix-enProvence, Vredenburg Utrecht, De Bijloke Ghent and Wigmore Hall in London.

Queyras often appears with renowned orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester, and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, working with conductors such as Iván Fischer, Philippe Herreweghe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jiři Bělohlávek, Oliver Knussen, and Sir Roger Norrington.

Queyras’s discography is impressive. His recordings of cello concertos by Edward Elgar, Antonín Dvořák, Philippe Schoeller, and Gilbert Amy have been released to critical acclaim. As part of a harmonia mundi project dedicated to Schumann, he has recorded the complete piano trios with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov as well as the Schumann cello concerto with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado. The album of Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Piano Trio No. 1 was released at the beginning of 2016. THRACE - Sunday Morning Sessions, his latest album, was released in August 2016. In collaboration with the Chemirani brothers and Sokratis Sinopoulos (lyra), it explores the intersections of contemporary music, improvisation and Mediterranean traditions.

Highlights in the 2016/2017 season include a Japan tour with the Czech Philharmonic under Jiři Bělohlávek and engagements with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Gewandhausorchester under Herbert Blomstedt and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner.

Queyras holds a professorship at the University of Music Freiburg and is Artistic Director of the Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence festival in Forcalquier. He plays a 1696 instrument by Gioffredo Cappa, made available to him by the Mécénat Musical Société Générale.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007–1012
“One day, quite by chance, I came across the six Bach suites in a music shop. I was thirteen then. I wondered what mystery lay behind the words ‘Six Suites for Solo Cello.’ I did not even know they existed, neither did my teacher, and no one had ever spoken to me about them. It was the great revelation of my life. I felt immediately that this was something of exceptional importance. On the way home I hugged my treasures: I started playing them in a wonderful state of excitement, and it was only after twelve years’ practice of them that I made up my mind to play them in public.”

This reminiscence by the great cellist, Pablo Casals (1876–1973), serves as a reminder of how recently the Bach suites have come to be known by the musical public. Casals was finally persuaded by Fred Gaisberg to make the first ever recording of the suites in 1936, by which time he had been playing them for almost half a century. Casals’s recording made a profound impact–and generations of cellists have fallen under the spell of these extraordinary masterpieces since then.

The early history of the suites is marked by their almost total neglect. They were probably composed in about 1720 during Bach’s time in Köthen (a few years before his move to Leipzig). It isn’t known for whom Bach wrote them, though there are at least two likely candidates working in Köthen at the time. One is the viola da gamba player Christian Ferdinand Abel (1682–1761), a great friend of the composer for whom Bach wrote the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV 1027–1029) and whose son, Carl Friedrich Abel, went on to promote a concert series in London with Bach’s son Johann Christian. The other is the leading cellist in the Köthen orchestra, Carl Berhard Lienicke (d. 1751). Whether either of them was the player for whom they were written is a matter of pure speculation since no documentary evidence has come to light. Equally uncertain is why Bach wrote them. The likeliest explanation is that they were intended–like much of his keyboard music–for private performance. Another idea, without any hard facts to support it but no less attractive for that, is that they may have been used for performance in church, as instrumental meditations, rather like Heinrich Biber’s “Rosary” Sonatas of 1676.

Bach’s autographed manuscript of the suites has disappeared, but there are four early surviving sources. The best known of these is a manuscript in the hand of his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach, made some time between 1727 and 1731. The existence of this manuscript has even led to one fantastical theory that the suites were actually composed by Anna Magdalena Bach (it was the subject of a BBC television documentary in 2015). But this idea can, I think, be considered the musical equivalent of believing in unicorns. Of the three other manuscripts, one is by Bach’s pupil Johann Peter Kellner made in 1726, and the other two are the work of anonymous copyists from later in the eighteenth century. Intriguingly, while these four sources are more or less in agreement on matters of pitch and rhythm, the expression marks are sometimes wildly different, suggesting that they were not all copied from Bach’s autograph. Bach scholars have generally agreed that Anna Magdalena’s manuscript was almost certainly copied from Bach’s lost original, and that the others, even Kellner’s copy, must derive from another unknown source.

The suites were not published until 1824, when they were issued in Paris by the firm of Janet et Cotelle as Six Sonates ou Etudes pour le Violoncelle Solo Composées par J. Sébastien Bach. The preface to this edition describes them as “studies for cello” and explains that “M. Norblin, principal cellist of the Académie royale de musique, has finally reaped the fruits of his perseverance by the discovery of this precious manuscript.” The preface goes on to outline the structure, persisting with the idea that the suites were intended as studies: “This collection consists of six suites, each of which is divided into six movements. The sixth suite is the only one that has as its object the high register of the cello; the rest of the book is intended to exercise the lower register…These studies by Bach for the cello are no less important than his other works, and the publication of this book cannot fail to obtain the greatest success.” Despite a reprint in Germany in 1825, and a new German edition in 1826, any notion of “the greatest success” remained a hope rather than a reality. In the 1860s, new editions tried to revive interest in the suites by supplying them with piano accompaniments but again they failed to attract much attention except, presumably, among a few pedagogues looking for teaching exercises. In 1879, the suites appeared in the collected edition of Bach’s works published by the Bach Gesellschaft in Leipzig. They were no longer described as “studies”, and Casals’s musical epiphany lay only a few years ahead. He was the first cellist of international standing to recognize the greatness of this music and his advocacy of them was of immense significance.

All six suites follow a similar design: a series of dances prefaced by a Prelude. It is in these opening movements that Bach shows the greatest variety of approach, and where he sets the expressive tone (as well as the key) for what follows. The second movement in all the suites is an Allemande, a dance that the German organist and theorist Johann Gottfried Walther described in 1732 in his Musikalisches Lexikon as one that “must be composed and likewise danced in a grave and ceremonious manner." Walther’s description of dance forms is particularly valuable when considering Bach’s use of them as they worked together in Weimar for nearly ten years (1708–1717), and they were even distant cousins. They remained on friendly terms and Bach even acted as a sales agent for Walther’s Musikalisches Lexicon. The Allemande is followed by a Courante. Johann Mattheson in 1739 described this dance as “chiefly characterized by the passion or mood of sweet expectation. For there is something heartfelt, something longing and also gratifying, in its melody: clearly it is music on which hopes are built.” Walther in 1731 described the rhythm of a Courante as “absolutely the most serious one can find,” but while it is serious, it is also comparatively fast. The Sarabande in the Baroque era was a slow dance in triple time, and, according to Walther, it was usually “a grave, somewhat short melody.” Following the Sarabande, Bach turns to dance forms sometimes called “galantaries,” dances of a more modern kind to provide contrast. In the six cello suites there are pairs of Minuets (Suites Nos. 1 and 2), pairs of Bourrées (Nos. 3 and 4) and pairs of Gavottes (Nos. 5 and 6). All the suites end with a Gigue, the liveliest of the dances that traditionally form part of a Baroque suite.

Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello in G Major, BWV 1007 (1720)
Bach sets the tone of the First Suite with a Prelude made of undulating arpeggios. The Allemande meanders purposefully until it arrives at a strong final cadence in the home key of G Major. The Courante jumps from higher to lower octaves with rather playful decorations. Using multiple stopping, the Sarabande is noble and understated. It is in two sections; the first ends on D (the dominant) and the second moves to E minor before returning to the tonic, G. The pair of graceful Minuets contrast Major and minor and both are marked by almost constant flowing movement. The Gigue brings the suite to a joyful conclusion.

Suite No. 2 for Solo Cello in D minor, BWV 1008 (1720)
The Prelude to the D minor Suite resembles a rather plaintive monologue, most of the writing being in leisurely sixteenth notes until the widely spaced chords that bring it to a close. The Allemande and Courante are both dominated by a similar sense of almost continuous rhythmic activity while the Sarabande is rather formal in style. The first Minuet is in the home key, while the second is altogether lighter in mood, in D major. The Gigue is based on a rugged, muscular melody marked by some surprising leaps. 

Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello in C Major, BWV 1009 (1720)
The opening gesture of the Prelude is a bold descending phrase that ends on an open C string, the lowest note of the instrument. From this the music rises again in constant sixteenth notes, sometimes outlining parts of scales and sometimes quite wide-ranging arpeggios, until reaching a noble climax on a series of four-part chords, and a closing phrase that is the same as the one that started the Prelude, but it is now rounded off with a sonorous C Major chord. The main thematic ideas of the Allemande and Courante also use the idea of descending phrases and both exploit the sound of the cello’s lowest note. The theme of the Sarabande is quite chromatic, but it is anchored in strong harmonies achieved through multiple stopping. The two Bourées are closely related to each other–both begin with the same rhythm–but the first is in C Major and the second is in C minor. The Gigue generates some remarkable sonorities through string-crossing and multiple stopping at the same time as creating a very strong sense of momentum.

Suite No. 4 for Solo Cello in E-flat Major, BWV 1010 (1720)
The Fourth Suite opens with a Prelude that is based almost entirely on descending arpeggios and broken chords, interrupted by faster scale-like passages and moving into some surprising keys–the lowest note at the half-way point is a C sharp, very remote from the home key of E-flat major. Where the Prelude was nearly all arpeggios, the Allemande depends on themes made out of parts of scales, interspersed with some quite wide leaps. The Courante is given added impetus by the use of triplets to propel the music in places as Bach plays with rhythms in duplet eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes, all within the same phrase. The Sarabande uses the sonorous qualities of E-flat Major though the cellist is tested throughout by unusually rich multiple stopping. The first Bourée that follows is almost entirely without double stopping, while the second is a contrast both in terms of slower figuration and fuller harmony. The first two bars of the Gigue provide all the thematic material for the exciting movement that ends the suite

Suite No. 5 for Solo Cello in C minor, BWV 1011 (1720)
The cellist is required to retune one of the strings (a technique called scordatura) for the Fifth Suite, in C minor, changing the tuning of the top string from A to G. The Prelude is a magnificent structure based on the slow-fast design of a French Overture. The start is grand and stately before the music turns into a triple-time fugue in which Bach – thanks to a brilliant compositional sleight-of-hand–gives the illusion of a single musical line imitating multiple contrapuntal voices. After the large proportions of the Prelude, the Allemande and Courante are both relatively straightforward. The Sarabande is a movement of extraordinary emotional power achieved through the simplest of means: wide-ranging arpeggiated figures all leading towards lower notes in the first half and inverting the process (and filling in the rhythmic pattern) in the second, without any double-stopping. The Gavottes are contrasted rhythmically–the first is sturdy and feels a little rustic, while the second is animated by constant triplet movement. The short closing Gigue is rather different from those of the suites already heard, marked by more angular phrases and dotted rhythms.

Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello in D Major, BWV 1012 (1720)
The sixth and final Suite is the crowning glory of the whole set. Bach originally specified that it was to be played by a five-stringed cello–the four lower strings tuned as normal, with a fifth tuned to an E above the top A string. Instruments of this kind are exceptionally rare, though one survives in the collection of the Royal Academy of Music in London that had belonged to the British cellist Amarylis Fleming. Its Prelude is one of the most remarkable of all thanks to its dazzling virtuoso display, its grandly-conceived design, and the ebullience of its rhythms that suggest a Gigue. The Allemande is elaborate and highly decorated, contrasting with the Courante which is one of the few movements in the suites to have no double stopping. What follows could not be more different: the Sarabande is one of the most complex of all those found in the suites, and it involves a great deal of multiple stopping to produce chords of three and four notes. This is feature of the rest of the Suite too: both Gavottes use multiple stopping (including some attractive drones in the second one), and the concluding Gigue has a kind of joyous abandon made all the more thrilling thanks to the opulence of Bach’s harmonies. This is music that seems to storm the heavens with uninhibited delight.

Nigel Simeone, 2016