Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Chamber Music Society

James Wilson & Beiliang Zhu, baroque cellos
Dec. 16, Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter

In the beginning (or nearabouts), there was Bach in the dark: James Wilson, in one of the early installments of what would become the concert series of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, played three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites for solo cello to 150 or so patrons in a room lit very dimly by a pair of candelabras.

As part of the society’s 10th anniversary season, Wilson reprised that remarkable recital. Doubled down on it, in fact, as he and the Chinese cellist Beiliang Zhu, a winner of the 2012 Bach Competition in Leipzig, alternated in playing all six of the Bach suites – as before, with sparse lighting.

It was, as Wilson said, a presentation of music experienced rarely in a lifetime. And not surprisingly so: A nearly three-hour program of works nearly identically formatted – prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bourĂ©e/gavotte, gigue – for a single instrumentalist, distantly visible to most of the audience, sitting in the dark in a spacious church sanctuary, is almost as challenging to the listener as playing a Bach suite is to a cellist.

A sizeable audience turned out. About half left during the second intermission, having heard the first four suites.

Wilson and Zhu played baroque cellos, his a five-stringed English instrument from the 1720s, hers a four-stringed modern reproduction (by John Terry) of a period cello. The tones and timbres of the two instruments and instrumentalists differed markedly. Zhu produced generally heftier bass and more focused high-register tones. Wilson summoned greater variety of voicings from his instrument, although with more variable intonation.

Zhu’s performance of the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009, was the evening’s showpiece. An overtly virtuosic treatment of the prelude gave way to an unusually long-lined, lyrical reading of the allemande. The closing gigue was another display of dazzling technique, although at some cost to the rhythmic “groove” of the piece.

Her borderline-romantic approach to the stylized expressiveness of baroque music – affectus, in period parlance – was displayed again in the sarabande of the Suite No. 6 in C major, BWV 1012.

Wilson, behaving like a considerate host, took on the relatively less familiar and somewhat less decorous Second, Fourth and Fifth suites.

His interpretive approach and instrumental sound cast the cello as a surrogate human voice, with differentiated chest, throat and head tones and phrasing that at times seemed translatable into German sung in a guttural Eastern accent. He sustained the dance rhythms of these pieces, even in their most elaborated or distended passages.