Review: Cello and Harpsichord Recital at Trinity

JOE CONWAY: ‘Kate acknowledged the applause gracefully, sat down with her cello purposefully, tuned, and launched into a thoughtful and glowing account of Bach’s G major Suite.’

Bach Jean-Baptiste Barriere Kate Conway Sean Heath Vivaldi

3rd June, 1.15pm at Trinity College Chapel. Free 

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

Having seen Kate Conway in action leading the cello sections of various university orchestras in recent months I felt sure this recital would be a high quality event. Of course there's a huge difference between playing in a 50-strong orchestra and giving a solo performance. And the walk from the west screen down the length of Trinity Chapel at the start of this concert may well have seemed a long and lonely one. But having reached the performing space at the east end, Kate acknowledged the applause gracefully, sat down with her cello purposefully, tuned, and launched into a thoughtful and glowing account of Bach's G major Suite.  Sure enough the opening notes confirmed that this performance was going to be out of the top drawer . . .

Like Bach's six great works for unaccompanied violin, the six cello suites are a bit of a musical miracle. It will soon be three hundred years since they were written but they've never been approached in terms of beautiful music for cello without any additional harmonic support. The opening prelude is particular lovely and Kate Conway lingered over the deep bass notes that punctuate the melody as it gradually unfolds and develops. She seemed to have all the time in the world to hold the music back or to push it forward in what was essentially a very free performance that bordered on the romantic. And why not?

Her authentic baroque cello, gripped between the knees rather than spiked to the floor, had a big open sound, enhanced by the wonderful Trinity acoustic. It came into its own in the sedate Sarabande which ended with an imaginative fade-out. The Courante and Gigue were more uptempo and energetic but Kate always had plenty of time to articulate the notes and convey the musical argument. It was also great to hear all the repeats done in this unhurried performance.

For the last two works on the programme Kate Conway was joined at the harpsichord by Sean Heath – who rather cleverly managed to avoid the unnerving walk down the chapel by taking a seat near the action before the concert began! Playing on a two-manual instrument he provided sparkling tone colour and elegant decoration which contrasted nicely with Kate's generous cello tone.

Vivaldi's Sonata in B flat was built on a slow-fast-slow-fast plan, dubbed a 'church sonata' for reasons few can remember, but appropriate in the context of this performance. Although Vivaldi is a close contemporary of Bach, he's nevertheless a very different composer – as the passionate and volatile lines of the first movement of this sonata showed. Florid and highly ornamented in the slow movements, there was more than a suggestion of Italianate fire in the quicker ones.

The last work on the programme was Jean-Baptiste Barriere's Sonata in B minor, another baroque church sonata which contains expressive effects that suggest it may have been written well after the two previous works. (Hmm, hmm – programme notes would have been good here!). Fast scales, trills, accents, sequences, some imitation between the instruments, and even an embryonic cadenza were features of this event-packed score. It's true that there was a slight issue of tuning between the instruments in the second movement but this can be sorted before the repeat performance of this concert at Clare on Monday. Something else Kate and Sean might consider for that occasion is putting Vivaldi ahead of Bach in the batting order to create a contrast of texture. And that way it wouldn't be such a lonely walk to the east end of the chapel!