Baching at the Moon

12 August, St Paul’s Church Napier
Cello: Raeul Pierard
By Anna Soutar

A recital of the Six Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach. This was a marathon for both performer and audience; three and a half hours of baroque music, each suite played in three, four, or even five movements; the audience held in suspended animation and profound silence whilst Maestro Pierard locked his bow into the first note of the next; then, almost anticipating the fading note of each final movement, heavy applause from this well versed Hawke’s Bay audience.

Sometimes described as music for the soul, the cello seems rather like a human voice, with the words heard distantly like thoughts spoken aloud, repeated, echoed, changed a little then repeated. Pierard, both a teacher and a performer, told a story of himself as a child listening through the wall as his parents and their friends socialised in another room, when he was supposed to be asleep. He said the Bach we were listening to was rather like that, something heard but not quite clearly enough to make out the words. What he heard were the patterns of speech, the cadences of the rise and fall of conversation. This how he describes the music of the cello.

He said to me later:  ”… the technical requirements for a seamless performance are astronomical – particularly for the final Suite as it was written for an instrument with 5 strings”.

Over the three hours of playing, Pierard took advantage of the pauses between each of the six suites and talked to the audience, placing Bach and his music in the context of the historical era they were composed, and the personal history of the composer.  The small group of listeners in St Paul’s, a few dozen, included at least a dozen children some of whom took advantage of Pierard’s assurances that they could come and go as they wished, but several stayed engrossed, to the end.

J. S. Bach was a mathematician, Pierard explained, and thus grew his awareness of patterns and repetition in composition. Pierard himself takes an engineer’s pleasure in repeated phases, yet when the repeated phrases gather, the cello gives us subtle differences in each, where the pattern is broken momentarily, then continues and what seems nearly tedious becomes something new and evocative. Pierard the performer shows in his face a response to the recurrence and seems to be content to take up the repetition again. Such mathematical roots could anticipate a mechanical expression but in Pierard’s hands and heart it is a matter of subtlety, soft changes and intricate alterations. While he plays these are echoed on his face, as he seems to smile to himself with a kind of recognition of each iteration. His concentration is profound – I know this because when I apologised for leaving from near the front with a coughing fit, he seemed genuinely ignorant of the interruption.

St Paul’s Church responded acoustically to the music of the cello, but was less kindly to the voice, so I regrettably was unable to hear much of his narration to the Suites but I could hear the solemnity of the later stages in the set as the composer aged and became saddened at life and the loss of children and family. The sombre notes gave way to the merry dances of the18th century, but soon returned to the sorrow of his  own developing blindness.

Raeul Pierard is a jobbing musician, crossing the world and through New Zealand. It is not a surprise that he and his friends gather music wherever they go, and for this concert, he offered us the encore gift of a piece composed by his friend Andrew Perkin which evoked the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was Middle Eastern and redolent with muezzin calls and the domes and pools of ancient palaces.

I had to ask Raeul about the energy needed for more than 3 hours continuous playing. He discounted it, but  “ … throwing a cello up and down stairs, in and out of cars, airports, trains and then to perform for an audience needs strength and a certain fitness to avoid collateral damage, so I do exercise daily … albeit fairly cursorily. …“

“As I mentioned in the concert, I love playing and performing the Bach Cello Suites. They are a window through to the inner life and nature of Bach, and they are an amazing gift to share.”

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