Monday, 23 October 2017


The Chamber, The Arts House
Friday (20 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 October 2017 with the title "Delving into details of Bach's Cello Suites".

This has been a bumper year in Singapore for the unaccompanied string music of J.S.Bach. So soon after Kam Ning and Loh Jun Hong's shared performance of all six Violin Sonatas and Partitas at The Arts House, the same venue hosted young Armenian cellist Khachatur Khachatryan in the six Cello Suites.

Composed between 1717 and 1723 and conceived as didactic exercises, these were virtually “lost” until Pablo Casals revitalised their performance in concert. Hearing all six – 36 movements in all – at one sitting was a daunting prospect, but in Khachatryan's hands and resourceful mind, the 160-minute-long concert proved an unqualified triumph.  

Playing on a 1914 Pedrazzini cello that once belonged to his grandfather, Khachatryan crafted a well-rounded and voluminous tone that spelled pure pleasure. Opening with the familiar Prelude of Suite No.1 in G major, his handling of its sequence of arpeggios showed he was no slave to the metronomic beat. That the music was allowed to breathe naturally like a good singer suggested a freedom from tempo strait-jacketing that was refreshing.

The printed score merely acts as a blueprint, and beyond the notes Bach did not leave directions or dynamic markings. Thus it was up to the performer to determine how the music should unfold and flow. Khachatryan had an excellent feel of its epic scope, yet was able to delve into finer details, such as including or omitting repeats, adding accents, grace notes and trills as he saw fit.

Every decision of his made sense, also translating into the sequence in which the suites were performed. Instead of progressing by catalogue number, he followed the relatively short and congenial Suite No.1 with the technically demanding Suite No.4 in E flat major with its awkward octave leaps in the opening Prelude. The contrasts were immediately felt, later escalating to the big crunching chords in Suite No.5 in C minor, where the deep sonority of tragedy loomed.    

Most of the movements were dances, and Khachatryan had the innate feel of pulse and movement deeply etched in his musical psyche. From slower Allemandes to pacier Courantes, the beat shifted accordingly, and in the paired dances of the fifth movements (Minuets, Bourees and Gavottes), there was sometimes a feel of jazzy improvisation that seemed improbable but sounded totally idiomatic.

The slow Sarabandes were the spiritual heart of the suites, and he luxuriated in spacious vistas without showing too much reverence. The concluding Gigues were rollicking  affairs, and what could possibly follow that of the valedictory Suite No.6 in D major? Khachatryan  received the vociferous applause, and offered as an encore Sicilian cellist-composer Giovanni Sollima's Lamentation, almost a summation of all the hi-jinks that had come before.      

Not enough of Bach? Next month, violinist Tang Tee Khoon and British cellist Colin Carr will relive the sonatas, partitas and suites - all 12 works - in two concerts at the Esplanade Recital Studio.  

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