The life so brief, the art so long in the learning

SIMPLY BACH

Christopher Howlett

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday November 17, 2021

Christopher Howlett

Is there life after the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall? Will the organization slip into the background or into nothingness when we enter the world’s springtime of no more lockdowns, vaccination of the total population extending to children in the womb, the relegation of the Morrison cabinet to exile on Pitcairn, and the accession of Greta Thunberg to President of the World? Put simply, no. As far as can be told, the Concert Hall shall not cease from exploration but will continue to fund its contributing musicians, ensuring them some kind of income from their professional practice in the same manner as has seen both Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt deliver 430 concerts/recitals since they began operations last year.

This achievement was modestly celebrated through Wednesday evening’s recital from Howlett comprising two Bach cello suites: No. 1 in G and No. 3 in C. All six suites are part of every serious cellist’s aesthetic DNA, just as the 32 Beethoven sonatas have primacy of place in each pianist’s professional world. It was evident that these suites are imbedded in Howlett’s fibre as both readings spoke with firmness and an integrity of delivery that showed a disciplined approach, each movement interleaving temperamentally with its companions. Along the way, you could take issue with some rhythmic choices peculiar to this player and some unexpected line-shaping idiosyncrasies, but such problems worked as pin-pricks, forgettable in the general scheme of these performances – unless you expend too much energy being a literalist or are captious about everything.

In the first suite’s Prelude, a kind of Apotheosis of the Arpeggio, I welcomed Howlett’s avoidance of emphasis on the low Gs in the first 4 1/2 bars, and later on the F sharps and Gs beginning at bar 15. Mind you, he made up for this with a hefty address on the repeated D that dominates bars 27 to 41, eloquently leavened by a splendidly light approach to the final four semiquavers of bar 39: a touch of shading that relieved the glorious clamour of these concluding strophes. The following Allemande showed several traces of individuality like the near-staccato approach to the cadential D before the double bar, and the aggressive attack on the A-B-C chain in bar 19.

As with all other interpreters, Howlett suited himself – within reason and musical logic – about where he inserted his phrasing pauses, nowhere better illustrated than in his Courante to this suite. It’s a delicate and difficult balance, keeping the fluency that’s so obvious on the page but at the same time investing the musical progress with breathing spaces that amount to interruptions of such significance as to ask the listener to compensate for any absence of metronomic regularity. My only problem came in bar 27 the first time round where the F sharp or E misfired. As for the Sarabande, you would be hard to please if you found this less than masterful, even in its splayed multi-stop chords which punctuated a generous and powerfully-limned upper line.

While giving both Menuets a welcome regularity of approach – they’re essentially dances, more than anything heard so far – Howlett reacted sensibly at the concluding notes to bars 18 and 20 of the minor-key Menuet II by observing a slight hiatus on both; after all, these are the crisis points of this benign amble. And the Gigue was handled as a driving burst of energy, unimpeded in its thrust by that solitary triple stop in bar 4. The delivery here smacked of the bucolic in its affirmative downbeats and a noticeable avoidance of polish – just the crunch of bow on string and a fine highlighting of Bach as a base mechanical (for once).

For the opening Prelude of the C Major Suite, Howlett changed tack and made a feature of accenting most of the first beats – extra weight, extra time. Against this came the urgent drive in play from bar 45 to bar 61 with the displaced arpeggios built on G constructing a compelling sonorous edifice. Finally, a startlingly undemonstrative treatment of Bach’s dramatic conclusion: a peroration that opens with an abrupt four-part chord putting a stop to the incessant run of semiquavers, followed by a superb rhetorical flourish or four that remind you in miniature of the violin Chaconne – the whole capped by a harking-back to the opening bar. Howlett’s double-stops in bars 6 to 7 of the Allemande worked more effectively on the repeat, and the final crotchet’s worth of bar 19 came over as rather throwaway in an otherwise evenly fluent environment. Otherwise, the rhythmic consistency proved steady and clear, in the main.

A generous weightiness informed the Courante‘s opening, infectious enough to make both halves’ repeats all the more welcome, their punchiness leavened by a delicate hesitancy across bars 73 to 77. A few questionable points of articulation arose during the Sarabande with some notes sounding an octave above pitch, probably due to bowing lapses, although both repeats proved impeccable as the interpreter delineated this movement’s remarkable variety of utterance involving rich aggregations and chords leading into unpredictable single-line bursts.

Both Bouree movements recalled the bounce and bucolicism of the G Major Suite’s Menuets, the attack demonstrating Bach’s matchless facility of inspiration, making much out of the simplest material and demonstrating a splendid emotional power, notably at the repeat of the first Bouree – those first notes a heartwarming restoration of the natural order (not really, but that’s the way I hear it). Even here, small details impressed, like the last four notes of bar 11 in Bouree II which piqued interest for their staccato character, and the early sounding of this piece’s final bass C (or was that unintentional?). Apart from a dodgy B in bar 17, the Gigue proved very persuasive with a well-plotted contrast between the deft sequential writing – bars 8 to 18, then 57 to 64 – and that infectious scrubbing motion across bars 20 to 32, later more aggressive between 80 and 92.

Both works have become very familiar in their original forms, most recital-giving cellists presenting either one of these or, occasionally, one of the other four. Even in concerto appearances, you’d be hard pressed to recall an encore that wasn’t a Bach suite movement. Expert visitors have impressed with their power of projection, or their smooth articulation, sometimes a welcome vehemence that drags Bach out of the 19th century salon. Howlett’s versions made their mark through an honesty of insight – no affectations, just a few more frills than the composer required, and an impressive coherence by means of which the suites maintained their intellectual and emotional rigour. In other words, a fine realization of craft – in the notes themselves, and in their delivery.