Performing the Bach Cello Suites is one of the most demanding things a cellist can do. The single stool on an otherwise empty stage looks more like the executioner’s block than a concert venue. For the performer there is really nowhere to hide. It isn’t so much the technical challenge, though there are a few testing passages; it’s rather that so many of the great cellists have recorded ‘definitive’ performances that the relative newcomer has a high mountain to climb to make a unique contribution. Yet that is what Philip Higham achieved at this concert.
His performance of the Suites was characterised by a flowing line, by the evocation of a distinct mood for each movement, by a way of playing that was never showy. If anything it was understated, but within that understatement was a range of expression that had the audience listening with rapt attention. There was hardly a cough or a rustlle of programme notes throughout the concert.
This way of playing the Suites is not strictly ‘authentic’. Although his cello was made well before Bach wrote the Suites, Higham uses an endpin, a modern bow held in the modern way, and steel strings. He also varies the volume from pianissimo to forte, frequently uses vibrato, and pulls the time around. What is ‘authentic’ is that everything he does is faithful to the music.
Let me go into details.
Firstly, he plays most of the work legato, with several notes to a bow. All four of the existing 18th century handwritten copies of the Suites contain bowing marks (“slurs”) but they don’t agree with each other. This gives the player the freedom to bow as he or she chooses. Higham chooses to slur a lot and this results in a lovely easy flowing style. It also means that when he does play one note to a bow you really notice it.
Secondly, he uses a wide range of dynamics. Bach didn’t write any dynamic marks and the custom is to play baroque works at a fairly uniform mezzo forte. Higham uses a much wider range than this but only when the music demands it. For instance, if the music is building to a climax he will crescendo. It’s tempting to play louder if you are playing fast; Higham not only resists this temptation but, several times, plays exceptionally quietly in fast passages; it is stunningly effective.
Thirdly, he “pulls the time around”. Take the opening bars of the Prelude to Suite No. 1. Higham emphasises the first note of each arpeggio and lingers on it slightly, as though to say “This G is the tonic, yes still G” (for 8 more times). Then, in bar 6, he says “now we’ve moved to C#” (uncomfortable – it’s not part of the key of G). And then he lingers on F# (which is) and we feel more comfortable. If you weren’t listening carefully you might not notice the lingering, but it would still have an effect on you.
Higham’s most outrageous liberty with timing came in the Sarabande of Suite No. 5. All the handwritten 18th century versions write the first 5 notes as 4 quavers then a crochet, followed without a break by another 4 quavers then a crochet. Higham cut the crochet down to a quaver followed by a quaver rest. That way he emphasised that the music consists of short statements, not one flow of melody. I loved it.
There’s a limit to how much detail a reader wants, so I’ll summarise. This was a performance of thrilling musicality, running through the gamut of emotions from melancholy to fury, from doubt to joy. The cello sounded glorious, with lovely bass notes and a warm upper register. Higham seemed to make light of the technical demands and took no liberties that weren’t justified by the music. We came away deeply moved. And it was a joy to hear two of Gabrielli’s Ricercare, written about 30 years before. They were plaintive, tuneful and at times fiendishly fast. They should be played more.
If I had to single out two movements of the Bach Suites from this performance they would be the Sarabandes of No.s 3 and 5. Each came after a fast Courante and imposed such a sense of stillness that one felt hardly able to breathe.