Bach to the Future: Bringing Baroque Music to Life

Bach to the Future

Last week, New York Philharmonic Principal Cellist Carter Brey gave the first of his two planned recitals of the complete Bach cello suites. The recitals are part of the New York Philharmonic’s month-long “Bach Variations” festival, which has largely focused on Bach’s orchestral works, showcasing the varied results that can be achieved on modern instruments in a modern orchestra by four conductors who have a varying approach to the incorporation of Baroque performance practice. Mr. Brey’s recitals form a welcome change of pace in the festival, showcasing his own personal investigation of his relationship with Baroque playing. Mr. Brey performed on Wednesday for a sold-out audience to laudatory reviews that recognized his personal relationship to the massive undertaking: the New York Times called his performance a “labor of love,” noting that Mr. Brey delivered “thoughtful, beautifully shaped, alert to contrapuntal lines and overall structure.” Above all, Mr. Brey has been very clear from the outset of this project that he has a close personal relationship with the music he will perform again tonight.

Bach is, for many performers, the most personal of all music in the repertoire. For solo string players especially, unaccompanied literature is sparse and rarely affords the artist an opportunity to immerse himself in a complete universe in the way that Bach does. String players so often work in collaboration with others, and the work of learning Bach’s music alone invites–and often demands–the development of a personal and unique relationship with not only the notes and the structure of the music, but the aesthetic and the flow. The genius of Bach’s music has inspired centuries of study, and scholars have been able to reconstruct the Baroque performance practice with astonishing detail–so much detail, in fact, that a student of Bach’s music can often feel that he or she is duty-bound to present the music as more of a living artifact than an organically performed piece of music. This depth of study is somewhat at odds with the sheer musical impulse that Bach arouses in the performer: the urge to bring forth the music in the most natural way possible, since it often seems that Bach’s incredible suites are in and of themselves a force of nature.

The tension between these two forces–the Baroque performance practice and the modern musical instinct–creates a musical approach that is completely different for every performer. Each player presents a different proportion of Baroque to modern in his concept, and Mr. Brey’s own performance has showcased his exploration of the Baroque beautifully. For those who could not attend the recitals, some understanding of Mr. Brey’s blend of modern and Baroque elements can be seen in the very approach to building the cellos that he performs his Bach cycle on.

As we reported last week, Mr. Brey chose to perform his Bach cycle on two cellos made by luthier Jim McKean. As McKean writes on his website, “Carter’s concept of the music had evolved considerably over the years, and he wanted to ground his interpretation in Baroque performance practice,” and it was only fitting that he turn to his old friend to help him find the right instrument. Rather than seeking out a Baroque cello to perform on, Mr. Brey instead asked that his contemporary cello be adapted into a Baroque-style instrument. Having made the first step into Baroque territory by practicing with a Baroque bow, Mr. Brey wanted to see if it was possible to modify the set-up on his McKean cello to create the Baroque sound and response that he was looking for. Brey and McKean consulted with William Monical, the “dean of Baroque instruments,” to determine what needed to be done. It could easily be done, they determined, with a different bridge, tailpiece, and an endbutton instead of a pin, and maybe a different sound post.

Less straightforward was Mr. Brey’s next idea: he wanted to play the Sixth Suite on a five-string cello, the instrument that it was written for. Five-string cellos are hardly commonplace today, despite the popularity of performing the Sixth Suite. The last of the cycle, it is the longest, most ornate, and is in many ways the most demanding, in large part because it calls for the cellist to play in much higher positions than the other suites do. The five-string cello eliminates this technical difficulty, allowing passages that would be performed in modern practice on a modern cello in thumb positions to be executed in neck positions. McKean had never even seen a five-string cello in a museum collection, much less in real life, and Brey would need time to get his fingers on a five-string to learn the appropriate fingerings. Says McKean, “Adding a new string disrupts a lifetime of ingrained shifts and bow crossings. It would be like relearning to ride a bicycle, but with your hands crossed.”

The project was no less daunting for the luthier. McKean adds, “In some ways it was an odd project; the literature for the 5-string cello begins and ends with one single piece of music: the Sixth Suite. I had just agreed to spend a month making a cello for thirty-two minutes of music. But so what? It was thirty-two minutes of the most glorious music ever composed – and this was a chance to hear it as Bach wrote it.” The process of making the 5-string was an arduous one, and one that presented a host of challenges. As McKean tells it,

It was well after Labor Day before I could begin work on the 5-string. As I was making it, Carter was refining his approach and style, and working with Bill on different strings and adjustments. But I was growing increasingly skeptical that the cello was going to work – the response was too slow, the sound lacking that focus and resonance when it’s properly centered. It confirmed my initial reservations about the cello: that the gut strings were just too short to maintain proper tension….The turning point was when Carter decided to drop the pitch to 415; this reduced the tension even further. The strings were perilously close to the point where even the pitch itself becomes uncertain – it will waver as the bow hits and then pulls the string. As much as he would never say it, it was clear to me that the cello was just not working the way he wanted it to. It was built for a soloist playing the modern literature: sostenuto, with full pressure for the full length of the bow. The Baroque style of bowing is completely different. Carter calls it gestural. It’s almost like plucking, in a way; a firm attack, but then the bow pulls away, letting the string ring (he demonstrates this in an interview on the Strings website). A cello designed for that can be adapted for a more contemporary style, but there’s a limit to how far a cello designed for the Romantic literature can be retrofitted. You can kind of get there, but it will never be exactly right.

The solution turned out to be a fitting metaphor for the entire process of learning Bach as a modern player, a serendipitous solution brokered by blending the most compatible attributes from both eras. McKean ended up using his son’s cello–an instrument he had made with a different sound and playing aesthetic in mind. Whereas Mr. Brey plays the instrument of a principal cellist and modern soloist–made for big playing and huge sound–McKean made his son’s cello as a vehicle for chamber music, not playing to the back of big halls: while he enjoyed playing, his son was not on a conservatory track. The model he used was rounder, with a fuller arch and a deeper channel: “the f-holes cut to make the top more flexible, the ribs shallower for an easy and quick response – it would work perfectly with a Baroque setup.”

And it did. The hybrid cello met with Brey’s approval, and when he played it for McKean to display the fruits of their collaboration, the reason for the five-string labor of love became apparent:

When he reached the part that gives cellists nightmares – the endless shift up the fingerboard – he instead just used the new top string. It was completely different from anything I had heard before. It sounded so natural; it danced. It was as though the missing channel on a stereo had finally been hooked up and I could finally hear the music in its entirety….Making the cello had turned out to be as much fun as I had ever had – designing it, making the composite fingerboard, shaping the wider neck; most especially, cutting the rosette. But hearing the Sixth Suite as it was meant to be – that was a gift. Making instruments in some ways is just a matter of making things right; and this was the way it was supposed to be.

To see more on the collaboration of Carter Brey and Jim McKean, visit McKean’s website. Also check out the two videos below of Brey in which he discusses the history of the score of the Suites, as well as the evolution of his concept from the traditional Romantic performance to one that incorporates historically informed performance practices.

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