Matt Haimovitz, cello: Works by J. S. Bach, Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford and Luna Pearl Woolf, Christ Church Cathedral, August 1, 2017.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz has had a rich history with the Bach Cello Suites. Shortly after releasing his first recording of the complete cycle in 2000 (using a modern cello), the Julliard-trained artist began touring North America with these works, performing them in such unconventional venues as restaurants and nightclubs.  When he decided to rerecord the cycle for Pentatone in 2015, Haimovitz switched to a Baroque cello and 5-string violoncello piccolo, also undertaking a careful study of the surviving manuscript of the works in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife. Furthermore, he commissioned six leading composers – Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford and Luna Pearl Woolf – to contribute original works that preface and reflect upon the music of each of the six Bach suites.

Photo by Jan Gates

Photo by Jan Gates

For the opening concert of Early Music Vancouver’s 2017 Bach Festival, Haimovitz presented four of the Bach suites, each one preceded by the newly-commissioned work specifically inspired by it. The first part of the concert featured Suites Nos. 1 and 5 prefaced, respectively, by Philip Glass’s Overture to Bach and David Sanford’s Es War. In the second part, Du Yun’s The Veronica and Vijay Iyer’s Run served to introduce Suites Nos. 2 and 3. The entire concert experience thus embraced two complementary goals: to present great music in a fresh context, and to feature new works that celebrate the spirit of crossover collaboration.

Of the four contemporary works, the Philip Glass piece is by far the most conventionally Bachian in its tonal language and ethos. The composer’s avowed aim to instill listeners with a mood of reflective calm, thereby preparing them for the opening Prelude of Suite No. 1, is brilliantly realized. The other three works are more eclectic in their range of influences. David Sanford’s piece, with its virtuosic pizzicato writing, is heavily indebted to the style of playing employed by jazz double bassists; its atonal idiom and jagged rhythms make for a striking juxtaposition with Bach’s brooding and solemn Suite No. 5. Even more brazenly modern-sounding is Du Yun’s The Veronica, in which glissandos and microtonal intervals are used to suggest Serbian chant and gypsy fiddle music. By contrast, Vijay Iyer’s Run is a tour-de-force of rapid repeated notes, string crossings, and energetic tremolos. Each of these four compositions is a perfectly admirable and worthwhile conception in its own right, though – given that Bach had already taken the trouble to preface his dance movements with preludes – one might wonder whether any further preamble is necessary.

Haimovitz’s playing of the Bach suites is individual and full of imaginative touches: for example, the way he gently lingers over the opening G-d-b sonority of each movement of Suite No. 1 to emphasize their motivic connection; or the delicate web of flautando sounds he spins through the second gavotte of Suite No. 5. The core dances of each suite are suitably weighty and rhythmically incisive, while the galanteries (Minuets, Gavottes, and suchlike) are agreeably light and fleet-footed. Perhaps Haimovitz’s liberties with tempo and dynamics in the Preludes occasionally border on mannerism, but I think that the cellist’s overall sense of the music’s rhythmic structure and his continuity of line are the virtues which make his approach special.

A most rewarding and illuminating start to the festival!


© Nicolas Krusek 2017


NICOLAS KRUSEK is a musician, conductor, speaker and music educator. After completing a degree in composition at UBC, he studied orchestral and choral conducting at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno (Czech Republic).  He has taught music courses in Simon Fraser University’ Adults 55+ Program and for UBC Continuing Studies, and presents regular lectures on opera at the West Vancouver Memorial Library.  He has also given educational talks for Vancouver Opera and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  He is president of the Opera Club, a popular monthly lecture series, and has been music director of the Ambleside Orchestra since September 2010.