Bach to Bach
Natalia Khoma soars with the first three cello suites
A sense of joyful anticipation beamed from the numerous smiles of audience members as they filed into First (Scots) Presbyterian Church for Natalia Khoma’s performance of the first three of J. S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Those smiles were repaid with an incredibly lush and powerfully gripping reading of the suites that called forth an incredible range of emotional content and communicated it to the audience with effortless grace. Marred only by what must have been a slight detuning of her D string during the second minuet of the second suite, this reading blasted through any conception one could have of Bach as “stodgy.”
The event was hosted by Enrique Graf, who informed the audience that Early Music Series coordinator Steve Rosenberg was at the hospital becoming a grandfather. After her introduction, Khoma explained that her love of Bach’s music stretched back to the days of her childhood. She heard his organ music played in cathedrals and wanted to be the one doing the playing. Raising her cello and bow to the ceiling she thanked the audience for helping make that dream come true. She then took her seat and began.
And what a beginning! The Prelude to the first suite may be one of those introduction to classical music works, ubiquitous to the point of lunacy, but in the hands of Khoma it sprang over the church as a boisterous, long-awaited greeting from a dear old friend. But a dear old friend possessed of an incredibly rich, dark, and fiery tone. Already a fast movement, her chosen tempo blazed with urgency. She took the Allemande quite quickly as well, but its closer contours allowed the warmth of her tone’s richness to play with First (Scots’) acoustics in a way that highlighted her crisp attack. The Courante fell through its descending themes, a jolly race. At the Sarabande, the full impact of her emotional intent became crystal clear. Its romantic fire took flight with a perfection of chords and the merest hint of rubato at those moments when one desires to linger, but knows that life must go on. Both of the menuets carried this intent forward, yet the second, with its chordless purity, showcased Khoma’s ability to draw forth delicate differences in sonority. The Gigue, an almost prissy piece, became a heavenly devil’s dance in Khoma’s hands, and ended the first suite with a sense of the fire to come.
The second suite, set in the serious yet relatively bright key of D minor, began with heart-searing lines of longing. Khoma’s increases and decreases in volume perfectly complemented the contour of Bach’s lines, capturing the beauty of an alert sadness. The Allemande’s fast tempo (I’ve never heard it played that fast) carried that sadness to a more desolate place while retaining and amplifying the work’s intent. And beauty flew by even faster in the Courante, where her tonal choices emphasized its rhythm. These are dances, after all! The Sarabande and both menuets brought a tempered sense of resignation to the longing and began to put that longing in perspective. There was a barely perceptible deviation from her otherwise perfect intonation during the second menuet, but she corrected in mid-flight and brought us to the Gigue. Ah, the Gigue! A spiraling cascade that encompassed the entire range of emotion in the suite and served ample justification to Khoma’s fiery and emotional approach.
Khoma departed the stage (presumably to tune the wayward string) and returned for the third suite. The Prelude found a freer tempo than the other two, bringing out its cries of joy and pain while Ms. Khoma’s fluid and precise dynamic control showed a meticulous attention to detail; as well as an intimate knowledge and deep love of this work. From the Courante’s popping theme, which bursts into flight on a wave of crescendos, to the end of the suite, the line between music and musician blurred into emptiness, carrying the audience with it. The Sarabande was a spellbinding return to the second suite’s theme of longing, with a backdrop of pure and deep love. This suite’s Gigue keeps one guessing, even though the resolution (as always with Bach) is inevitable and absolute. On this day, it was over far too soon for these humble ears. The audience agreed, and within seconds were on their feet.
Bach Cello Suites by Natalia Khoma • Piccolo Spoleto’s Early Music Series • $12 • 1 hour • June 8 at 3 p.m. • First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, 53 Meeting St. • 554-6060