Cellist Fishman brings interpretive mastery to Bach suites

By Lawrence Budmen

Guy Fishman performed Bach Cello Suites Tuesday night in Coral Gables as part of Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival.

In the Baroque era, the cello was primnarily utilized as an accompanying continuo instrument that played a bass line. Around 1720, while kapellmeister for Prince Leopold in Köthen, Johann Sebastian Bach elevated the instrument to major status with his six unaccompanied cello suites. 

Guy Fishman, principal cellist of Boston’s venerable Handel and Haydn Society, played three of these works on Tuesday at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables as part of Seraphic Fire’s ongoing Enlightenment Festival.

Fishman has performed regularly with Seraphic Fire on several occasions. He plays a 1704 Baroque cello, made in Rome. (The instrument was sixteen years old around the time that Bach wrote the suites.)  Holding the cello between his knees (without a peg on the bottom) in the manner of a viola da gamba, Fishman exhibited impeccable musicianship. The deep sound from the instrument’s gut strings was enhanced by Fishman’s smooth technique, never scraping or allowing intonation to falter. (Fishman joked to the audience that he was concerned about how his cello would respond to the Miami heat but, he said, “the instrument loves the humidity.”)

Each of the three suites performed has six movements and its own distinctive character. A prelude is followed by six dances. The Suite No. 1 in G Major is lively and replete with energy. Suite No. 2 in D minor unfolds in darker, more reflective modes and there is rustic earthiness in the musical pathways of Suite No. 3 in C Major.

The prelude of the first suite may be the best known section of these scores and Fishman’s broadly spun traversal was an enticing preview of the imagination and artistry he would bring to each movement. Bach’s settings of the sarabandes form the soul of these path-breaking suites. In the famous one of the First Suite, Fishman’s unhurried, noble spacing of long paragraphs sounded almost as if he was improvising the music. The fourth movement Sarabande of the third suite is one of Bach’s most sublime inspirations. Fishman gave it fresh life with unhurried bow strokes and clean, distinct articulation of every note.

There was rhythmic impetus in the First Suite’s Allemande. The strumming sound that Fishman produced from the cello enlivened the double minuet of the severe Second Suite. His agile fingering encompassed the swaying, organ infused textures of the Third Suite’s Prelude. Instead of minuets, the fifth movement of the C Major suite spotlights multiple bourrées and Fishman set a brisk, toe-tapping pace. He infused the gigues with indigenous peasant spirit, connecting to the dance’s origins.

In several movements, Bach requires the player to perform a bass line simultaneously with the main thematic material and Fishman made every detail emerge clearly. 

The concert was greatly enhanced by the intimacy of the church’s Comber Hall space. With audience members seated on three sides around Fishman, listeners were just feet away from the cellist. 

Fishman’s rendition of these unique scores reached the highest level of interpretive insight and instrumental mastery. Seraphic Fire should definitely bring him back to perform Bach’s other three suites.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. at Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale. seraphicfire.org

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Wed Feb 19, 2020
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