Jean-Guihen Queyras Performs Six Cello Suites



This event would be better described as a feat of endurance than a concert. Jean-Guihen Queyras, the incredible cellist who performed last Friday evening, played all six Johann Sebastian Cello Suites over the course of three hours. This program is especially difficult, due not only to its length, but also to the increasing level of virtuosity required for each suite. 

The first suite is the easiest, and the sixth was written for an instrument with five strings, though Queyras played it on a four-stringed instrument. If that was not enough: he played them all from memory. The extent to which one man and one cello can entertain and enchant an audience for this amount of time will never cease to amaze me.

As I sat down in the second row, I realized how this concert would use the intimate setting and perfect acoustics of Robison Hall to its fullest potential. As soon as Queyras started playing, I was able to see everything: his bowing technique, his fingers and even the vibrations of the strings. Of course, one usually goes to a concert to hear, not to see, but watching the instrument being played makes all the difference between a recording and the most riveting concert. 

The skill and lightness with which Queyras handled the bow allowed him to play the quickest sections with what appeared to be ease, although it is the sort of ease which one knows can only be attained with incredible amounts of practice. Especially in the sixth suite, which includes several high and low notes played in quick succession, Queyras played with this kind of sureness and professionalism. 

One of the more interesting parts of the concert was when Queyras spoke with us about the music he was playing. He used the interlude between a few of the suites to speak to us because the fifth suite requires retuning the instrument lower, and the sixth requires retuning it higher. His instrument, a 1696 cello by Giofreddo Cappa, cannot be played for about ten minutes after it has been retuned on account of its age. 

During these talks he spoke about the act of retuning in performance, quoting Rostropovich. He said that Rostropovich said retuning an old instrument during a concert is like taking a person to a Michelin star restaurant through the kitchen. But nowadays, he added, people like to see the kitchen. 

This comment felt particularly apt as a way to describe the overall mood of the concert, as he often smiled during the more playful pieces and broke out a wide grin when he made a mistake, but this only happened once. 

During the second break, between the fifth and sixth suites, Queyras gave us a detailed explanation for why he played this piece with the four-stringed cello. Besides the cost and risk of touring with two cellos, he cited the way the five-stringed instrument produces sound. Since the fifth string is the highest, it is also the loudest, and it tends to drown out the lowest string. To compensate for this effect, the entire instrument becomes quieter. 

Queyras said that he would be comfortable playing such a quieter instrument in the perfect acoustics of Robison Hall but that in any normal performing venue, the sound would be inadequate for the expectations of a modern audience. He also said that the four-stringed version is more virtuosic, and that it plays better with audiences. 

It is difficult to write about the music itself because of the scale and ambition of the project. Queyras said at one point that this project was “crazy” for Bach because no one had ever composed this much music for the solo cello before; this project was so far ahead of its time that other solo cello pieces only started appearing in the 20th century. To listen to all six suites at one time becomes a captivating experience because the monotony of the instrument’s timbre contrasts so sharply with the endless imaginative invention of the music. 

For such a vast group of pieces, it can be difficult to pick out the best, but my favorites were the always-popular prelude from the first suite, every fast piece from the third suite and the concluding gigue from the sixth suite.

In all, this concert was an unmitigated success, and if anything it has only increased my already sky-high expectations for what is already an excellent season of engaging music.