Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: James Wilson

Jan. 13, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Richmond

Perhaps the most singular concert experience in recent Richmond history took place on Dec. 13, 2005, the night of "Bach in the dark," when James Wilson played three of the composer’s six suites for solo cello in a downtown chapel lit, barely, by a pair of candelabras.

Wilson belatedly completed the cycle in much brighter surroundings, and as he’s going through a stylistic evolution. In recent years he has taken up the baroque cello and endeavored to perform music of the period in the "historically informed" manner, playing with minimal vibrato, employing period techniques such as messa di voce (a swelling effect in the middle of a long note) and emphasizing the affectus, or stylized emotiveness, of slow or lyrical passages.

This interpretive shift is a work in progress, judging by Wilson’s performances of the suites in C major, BWV 1009; D minor, BWV 1008; and D major, BWV 1012. Playing on a modern cello – needed, he said, to cover the range of the D major Suite, written for a now-extinct five-stringed fiddle that reached higher pitches than the baroque cello can manage – Wilson produced massively sonorous yet austere bass notes and woodsy, at times almost folksy, higher-register tones.

His readings of sarabandes, the central slow movements of these suites of dances, were characterized by dark, brooding lyricism. Tempos were distended by long sighing effects and long resonations, and dynamic changes further contoured phrasing. All this can sound excessively mannered if you’re conditioned to modern string playing. Heard on its own terms, though, it packs quite an expressive punch – witness Wilson’s memorably profound readings of the allemande and sarabande of the Suite in D major.

The effect of the affectus and the rest was to draw the listener deep into both the mechanics and spirit of this music. Its formidable technical challenges were vividly audible, especially in the fingering adjustments required in the D major Suite; and the more varied colors and textures produced by period-style playing made one more appreciative of both the dance roots and the ingenuity and expressive depth of Bach’s creations.

Stray squeaks and squawks, and some mushy rhythms, suggested that Wilson may not yet be fully in command of period fiddle techniques – a process of simultaneously learning the old and unlearning the modern. But he clearly has the ears and sensibilities to master baroque performance style.