July 10, 2021
Written by Jónas Sen
Published in Fréttablaðið, Reykjavík
NO DANGER OF A DUEL
BACHWARDS & FORWARDS
JS Bach Solo Cello Suites
performed by Geirþrúður Anna Guðmundsdóttir
Norðurljós Hall, Harpa Concert and Conference Centre, Reykjavík
Saturday 10 July 2021
Johann Sebastian Bach had a hot temper. As a young man, he worked as a church organist in Arnstadt, where he was also tasked with training a student choir and an orchestra. He loathed it. At one orchestra rehearsal, he lost his temper and called a hapless bassoonist every foul name in the book. The bassoonist didn’t take it lying down, however, and a few days later, armed with a cudgel, he attacked Bach, who responded by drawing a dagger. The confrontation could have ended badly, but people nearby were able to separate the two.
I mention this anecdote to show that Bach was an emotional man – something that some performers tend to forget. As a result, his music can sometimes sound elegant but soulless. This was certainly not the case for cellist Geirþrúður Anna Guðmundsdóttir, who performed all six of Bach’s solo cello suites at a pair of concerts in Harpa over the weekend.
No doldrums in sight
The first of the two performances, which is the focus of this writer’s review, featured numbers 1, 4, and 5. Suffice it to say that there were no doldrums, no soullessness in her playing. Geirþrúður’s interpretation of Suite #1 in G major was joyful and lively. Her tone production was exquisite, the runs clear and chiseled, her bow technique impeccable. But that wasn’t all. Geirþrúður played from the heart, her interpretation packed with emotion. She took risks, and she made no compromises. Her playing was agile and passionate, the flow convincing, her interpretation full of musical insight. The minutest gestures were exquisitely shaped, yet the structural lines were clear. If Geirþrúður had been in Bach’s orchestra, he surely would have praised her to the skies, and there would have been no danger of a duel.
Second on the programme was Suite no. 4 in Eb major – a difficult key for cellists, although you wouldn’t have known it based on Geirþrúður’s performance. She played Suite no. 5, the last piece on the programme, with the same passion and poise. Both suites were exceptionally dramatic, featuring strong contrasts, unbridled and honest. It was an awe-inspiring experience.
Various dance forms
The movements of the suites bear the names of various dances, as each suite is conceived as something of a ball. The opening Prelude, a sort of overture, corresponds to the orchestra’s warm-up before the ball actually begins – an introduction to the festivities. The remaining movements are entitled Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and so forth. Each has its own characteristics – the Courante with its running steps and the Sarabande slow and stately. In each of the suites, the Sarabande is the most introspective movement and is often called the heart of the piece. Geirþrúður’s interpretation of the Sarabandes was profound and spiritual, and never pretentious. The Courantes, on the other hand, were jolly and rambunctious, the cello playing both lively and exciting. It was a memorable afternoon.
CONCLUSION: An exceedingly lively and impeccably prepared recital.
There were no doldrums in sight, writes Jónas Sen.
Translated from Icelandic by Anne Benassi, July 2021