In conjunction with her new recording of the Bach Cello Suites and the accompanying short documentary (which we premiered), cellist Inbal Segev performed the six Suites in two concerts. The second program, consisting of Suites 2, 4, and 6, took place last night at Bargemusic in Brooklyn.
As the boat rocked – luckily, mostly gently – Segev gave an account of these difficult pieces that was impressive both technically and idiomatically. As classical music producer Todd Landor says in the documentary about Segev’s recording of the works, “If you’re going to be a great cellist, at some point you have to conquer the Bach Cello Suites.” Done and done.
I’ve always heard the “Prelude” to Cello Suite No. 2 as mournful, and that’s the tone Segev set with it as the concert opened. Its dramatic double-stop passages gave way to the fluid “Allemande” just as the boat began its first rocking session of the evening. (I always admire musicians’ ability to ignore or adapt to the swaying of a moving environment as they perform on a boat. I’ve had such gigs myself a couple of times and it’s a challenge, even with music requiring much less virtuosity than Bach’s does.)
Segev’s quick fingering and sparkling technique came to the fore on the “Courante,” and by the expressive “Sarabande” the somewhat thin tone she’d begun with had deepened and warmed up. The distinctiveness of each note during the fiery “Gigue” was a joy to hear.
So, in a different way, was the “Prelude” to Suite No. 4 (nicknamed the “Heroic” for its difficulty). Bach’s fascinating slow passages, built intriguingly on more-or-less basic arpeggios, gave the cellist a prime opportunity to draw on all her creative reserves, and the result was a rich interpretation and a deep, gorgeous tone.
The “Courante” with its complex, stupid-fast passages was a spectacular highlight. Following the jocular “Bourée” was another impressive display of fingering and bowing technique, No. 4’s “Gigue,” which in Segev’s hands wouldn’t have sounded much out of place in Ireland or old-time Appalachia. It’s moments like this that bring home how music really is the universal language.
The program’s epic high point came after intermission, with the long, slow “Allemande” of the Suite No. 6. Here Bach stretches the definition of the dance form into a piece that can feel almost free-form, certainly dreamlike, and Segev’s expressivity reached transcendent heights with it.
The whole Suite No. 6, which the cellist pointed out was written for a five-string instrument rather than the modern four-string violoncello, challenges a musician’s abilities, with heavy use of the instrument’s top register, a crazy-fast “Courante,” droning self-accompaniments, and leaping double and triple stops. If Bach’s “Gigues” of Nos. 2 and 4 felt like the folk dances that inspired them, he had exited folk-music territory with the “Gigue” of No. 6, which closed the concert. With it he created instead a formidable, modern-sounding technical challenge, which Segev put across with confidence and feeling on this rocking evening on the barge.