Sigiswald Kuijken Shoulders J.S. Bach On Cello Outrider

Ensemble Caprice opened the festival
Ensemble Caprice, conducted by Matthias Maute, paired Vivaldi concertos and Eastern European gypsy music.
By Alan Conter

MONTREAL — Now in its thirteenth year, the Montreal Baroque Festival got underway on June 25 in Redpath Hall at McGill University with two short but unusual concerts. This four-day Baroque and early music event is the creation of Susie Napper and Matthias Maute, both faculty members of McGill’s Schulich School of Music.

Sigiswald Kuijken played Bach suites on the violoncello da spalla.

The highlight of opening night was the appearance of renowned Belgian cellist Sigiswald Kuijken playing two Bach Cello Suites on the violoncello da spalla, a precursor of the modern cello.  According to the festival and to guest musicologist Gilles Cantagrel, who spoke before the concert, the performance was the first time these famous Bach suites have been performed on the cello da spalla in Canada, and perhaps in North America as well.

The cello da spalla is played on the shoulder somewhat like a viola. That is to say, the back of the instrument rests against the chest, and the neck is played along the outstretched arm. Bowing is almost vertical in nature from below, and a shoulder strap helps keep the instrument in place. Kuijken has two cello da spalla instruments, a five-stringed version he uses for playing the sixth Bach suite and a slightly larger four-stringed one for the first five suites. Dmitry Badiarov of Brussels made both his spalla; the four-stringed one we heard was made in 2007.

As both Kuijken and Cantagrel told the audience before the performance, the sound isn’t quite as fulsome as we are accustomed to on modern cellos, particularly in the lower registers. This affects the listening experience only for a short while. With the combination of his well-studied playing and the rich, natural acoustics of the hall — gifted to the university in 1893 by a sugar magnate — he soon immerses you in a different, but very rewarding, aural experience of these familiar cello suites. The audience burst into applause, waiting for the final decay of the final note of Suite No. 1.

Soprano Suzie LeBlanc: soulful Bach. (Tara McMullen)
Soprano Suzie LeBlanc: her Bach is soulful. (Tara McMullen)

Kuijken was then joined by soprano Suzie LeBlanc and Michel Angers, a star of lute and theorbo, in two short excerpts from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach.  LeBlanc chose to sing two lovely works from it.  She began with the recitative “Ich habe genug” and aria “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen.” It is clear why she is one of Canada’s most decorated interpreters of early music (though no stranger to contemporary music, either). She sings with remarkable clarity and imbues her interpretation with natural emotion. Her Bach is a soulful composer. The second selection, the aria “Gib dich zufreiden,” was mesmerizing. The complicity among the three performers was wonderful too. After Kuijken performed the second cello suite on his odd new-old instrument, he repaid the richly deserved applause with a short encore.

The earlier of the two opening concerts featured Ensemble Caprice. This Baroque chamber group is headed by Maute, an acclaimed recorder player and Baroque flutist. For over 25 years, the ensemble has earned high praise for live performances, as well as for recordings of Baroque and early music played on period instruments. On this occasion, they chose to marry the work of Vivaldi to selections from a little-known collection — at least outside musicology circles — of eastern European gypsy music published in 1730 and called the Uhrovska collection for the town in which it was discovered.

Maute: spiritual connection between Vivaldi and gypsy music.
Maute finds a spiritual connection between Vivaldi and gypsy music.

Maute’s thesis is that there is a spiritual connection between Vivaldi’s concertos and the local music of Slovakia, Austria, and the Balkans.  He hypothesizes that Vivaldi would have encountered these sounds in his travels to Prague and Vienna and drawn inspiration from them. So the concert wove its way between selections from the Uhrovska collection and the Concerto for recorder, oboe, and two violins in C major, RV 87;  Trio Sonata for two violins and basso continuo “La Follia” in D minor, RV 63; and Concerto for recorder, violins, and basso continuo in C major, RV 443.

The idea was both entertaining and very pleasing, if not altogether convincing. Even at his most exuberant, Vivaldi seems to strive for an almost architectural purity so unlike the rhythmic freedom of the Uhrovska excerpts, though there are certainly tonal affinities between the pieces. Olivier Brault’s violin was remarkable throughout, ably supported by Napper on cello, Lucie Ringuette on violin, David Jacques on guitar, and Ziya Tabassian on percussion, as well as Maute and Baroque flutist Sophie Larivière. They are very fine players. Perhaps Maute’s opening-night enthusiasm got the better of him at times because it seemed as if he would very occasionally rush ahead of her. It was a minor fault in a performance otherwise marked by intelligent and spirited playing.

For more information about the festival, go here.

Alan Conter is a media and communications consultant and former CBC Radio executive producer. He was a long-time freelance music critic for Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper.