Jon Ciliberto | 30 SEP 2022
Works for solo instrument are personal. With his performance on Saturday, September 24, at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, baroque cellist André Laurent O’Neil described how Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Cello have interwoven with his own musical biography.
O’Neil, based in Albany, New York, opened Atlanta’s New Trinity Baroque season. The program was divided into two parts. The first was a “Suite” constructed of individual movements from across the entire range of six Suites (a “greatest hits” of the Cello Suites, as it were). O’Neil, who released a recording of the completed Suites in 2020, decided that this was a suitable way to give listeners a taste of the entire set, as well as highlighting well-known passages: he called it “Suite (’Sweet’) Favorites,” a “tasting menu” of the Cello Suites.
The cellist prefaced the performance with some personal history, and a few technical notes. The Cello Suites are a leitmotif throughout his life as a musician, from his first public performance of the “Bouree” from the C-Major Suite in fifth grade to first hearing a performance of the entire set in high school, through higher education at Yale, performance in orchestras in the US and Spain, to his more formal entry into Early Music at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague in his 30s. The latter cemented his interest in the baroque cello.
I am always curious to learn why musicians situate themselves in Early Music: beyond the intricacies of technical performance and instrument design, temperament, the sociopolitical aspects of performance setting and patronage, I believe that some musicians are particularly drawn to dwelling solely in the music of a particular period in history largely for reasons of consonance with the music itself.
O’Neil’s playing is resonant and fluid, incorporating improvisational aspects of baroque music. The setting of St. Bartholomew’s opened the single instrument to greater space without swallowing its individual voice.
The upper register sections of the “Allemande” from Suite no. 6 brought out to me how introspective a “dance” can be, and his interpretation of the “Sarabande” from Suite no. 5 brought to mind the way in which a sketch captures an entire scene.
The performer’s “Suite” of parts was more generally legato, although a more clipped and formal style well-suited some sections (e.g., the C-major “Bouree”). O’Neil noted in his opening remarks that in order to “correctly” play two of the suites, a cellist would require both a 5-string instrument and a differently tuned one. For the evening’s performance, he adjusted rather than interrupt to bring on two separate instruments.
O’Neil’s sweep through the Suites also offered an opportunity to display the improvisational possibilities available in the works: I particularly noted his inventive dynamic choices, close bridge-playing, and subtle tremolo work.
The second half of the program opened with a Sarabande composed by O’Neil in the style of Bach’s Cello Suites, but with some modern irony noted in its structure. The program concluded with the full Suite No. 1, played to my ear somewhat more studiously and less playful than the opening section’s “Suite”: generally crisper and focused on precision.
The double CD of all six Suites was available for sale, and O’Neil remarked on his sense that recording it was the culmination of what appeared to him as something predestined from his earliest experiences as a cellist. Devotion to the craft of baroque cello, and the endlessly rich opportunities Bach’s Suites offer, are evident throughout. It is recommended for all lovers of Bach, the cello, and Early Music. ■