Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bach: Cello Suites, Anne Gastinel

When my friend invited me to his wedding, he mentioned that an old classmate would be playing a Bach cello suite for the procession. I remembered my classmate's technique as being capable and precise. He had a very good ear, and could produce a warm tone -- no small talents for an 18-year-old kid, but beyond that there was little to remark upon. He'd been to Juilliard since I'd last heard him play, so I was looking forward to his performance.

I met him just before the wedding took place. We shook hands and caught up a bit, then he set up his instrument and did some warm-up exercises. The wedding proceeded flawlessly, and when it was time for the procession, he went to work.

I'd never seen or heard anything like what came next. He took sharp, deep breaths before each musical phrase and then threw himself into the playing and tucked himself right into the back of that instrument as if he were making love to it. As astonished as I was by his technique, I was even more surprised at the tears that were flowing down my cheeks. This was an incredibly evocative performance.

At the reception, I approached him at the bar and asked him about it: who was his teacher? what was the theory behind this technique? how did he know how deeply to breathe and when? "Oh, the breathing," he said. "Well, I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

I figured this was either a trade secret, or something a little too strange to explain over drinks. Since I'm not much of a classical music buff, his technique wasn't something I encountered again until 20 years later when, out of weariness with the listless shape of current rock and roll, I began exploring classical options at eMusic. I do like Bach, and am especially fond of the Cello Suites after enjoying Yo-Yo Ma's TV series exploring the same; eMusic offered these suites performed by Anne Gastinel. I scrolled down to the comments, and noticed: "Gastinel's version of the 'suites' is very inspired and soulful. She brings the notes alive with her inner energy, she sighs, breathes deeply while playing." Well, boy howdy! I hit "download."

At some point in his program, Yo-Yo Ma points out that Bach's mathematical precision presents the player with the temptation to aim for technical virtuosity, at the expense of its organic soul -- the music, really. Gastinel locates that soul, and moves with it. With her performance, she plumbs new depths in this formidable, renowned music -- surprises, like the erotic charge within this ancient expression of worship, abound. If my saying that seems crass, the actual performance is anything but. Listen and judge for yourself: eMusic and Amazon.

As for "the breathing," even this worldwide web of ours has little to report -- except for this and this. Fearsome secret, indeed.

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