Monday, 17 September 2018

Bach: Cello Suites - Nóra Kallai - Concert

It is a settlement where people breathe out lavender and Lake Balaton is reflected in their eyes. 
A spacious peasant house with a thatched roof. Infinite kindness and benevolence of the friends inside. 
Realisation of a big dream of long years.

Early Music Saloon. 
It is a unique speciality which keeps emerging like an island all over Hungary. What makes it so grandiose?
There are two answers - one is complicated, the other is simple. The latter is, obviously, that you must try it and you will see it clearly.
The other is complicated because you must understand the roots - why performer and audience are split apart - the fact that it is far from being normal cannot be comprehended by today’s people. 

We don’t understand that we take a seat in the Palace of Arts, this hangar, pay a fortune, 1699 people are gasping in our ears, we are delighted by musicians size of poppy seeds at a distance of 50 meters and we don’t even know them. We don’t know whether they like what they do, we never see how they hold a glass of wine in their hands, whether they are fond of poppy seed cakes, we cannot see their eyes for the false glow.

Saloon. All is different here. The audience is circa 20 people, just pleasant in a spacious room. Candle light. We are right next to the performer and the instrument so close that we get into the secret aura which usually covers musicians only. Total penetration into the private sphere. As far as the audience is concerned, there is no peaceful napping, discursiveness there and back; there is intellectual effort, we are part of the performance, we must accompany and watch all that is going on. In return we receive a never-experienced musical intimacy.

Nóra Kallai. 
She is a cellist and viola da gamba player. She is a free-lance professional musician, she plays in several ensembles. A week ago, at Easter, she provided accompaniment to recitatives of a Mathew passion somewhere in Germany.

We are familiar with her. She is from Veszprém, member of the Prima-awarded Recercare orchestra. We are familiar with her gamba playing, her nippy sense of humour and we know what music she is fond of. We know what she thinks of lots of things.

Bach cello suites, dall’Abaco pieces and a Gabrieli are on.

I myself am at odds with Bach’s music. I can relatively well explain what’s wrong with him, but I am careful with Nora. Not only because she is a professional musician and I am just an amateur listener - it was long ago when this fact scared me.

Rather because she is frighteningly good at arguing unlike the musicians I know. As if argumentation too was taught at Early Music Academy. Moreover, she is familiar with and plays plenty of the pieces of the Maestro from Leipzig, she has the science of solfeggio at her fingertips, she knows loads of tuning systems by heart; she knows almost everything about the instrument and the era. 

And, what makes me truly believe that she is fond of Bach is that she is excellent at earlier music as well, she is familiar with nearly each record I write about, and she can play Sainte Colombe on viola da gamba in a way that I have seen people listening to it with tears in their eyes. So hers is not the usual snobbery which is my pet hate:

Oh, Bach cello suites, wow, they are so beautiful - Aunt Margaret blinking her eyes, her biggest challenge is to select the proper outfit for the concert meanwhile she listens to all sorts of shit at home…

And, of course, the main difference is that I get out of the air-conditioned bus, goggle my eyes in the dim church, but Nóra builds up the same cathedral brick by brick, literally with her own hands and soul.

Despite all this, we cannot convince each other, I employ plenty of examples and records in the fight, the ammunition here is of the highest quality - the purity and unbiasedness of the external approach and the love of harmony and melody of the non-musician, the greatness of Renaissance Philosophy. We end our hot debate with a consensus that everyone is allowed to like what they wish, the broader horizon is never a disadvantage, and my biggest problem might be that I haven’t yet heard a performance that would really touch me, which is not necessarily the fault of the composer. In a word, my objection to Bach has tenderly turned into a cold, sufficiently distanced yet some kind of respect, even if there is a nice layer of dust on his records on my shelf.

Never forget to look at the calendar - I mean the huge emptiness of the late Baroque, boredom choking in rice powder, the selfishness of the void structures killing the audience, the loads of lousy music which flooded Europe. Paradigms of eras are never accidental. Bach stood high out, his oeuvre actually seems to be a beautiful attempt to restore the musical intellectuality of the Renaissance.

The instrument.

Baroque cello. 
We can say that it is the successor of the viola da gamba. It looks similar to the cello but the difference is the point. I mainly mean the conceptional differences. Nora says that it is not a 300-year-old instrument but it is a modern one. The thing is that the cello makers set off from the modern cello and they reconstruct it in the design phase to make it similar to the old one. 

Different angles, different tension of the strings, lower volume, application of gut-strings, which provides a lot more overtones. However, stuff of several hundreds of years cannot be re-conjured there. That is, we construct old-timer cars with engine control electronics and good quality modern tyres. 

The gamba has bunds, the cello doesn’t. This is the point. 
Here comes philosophy. The end of the string tightens onto the bund when played on the gamba; it closes there. They call it open string. A Renaissance Conception. It doesn’t matter who plays it, if pressed sufficiently the sound will be the same. I don’t mean the mode of playing but the physics of the sound-creation, the person doesn’t count at this point. Whereas the tightening of the finger makes the end of the string on the cello. It is a living thing. The break-in of the Individual just like in music so much that even the hand cream Nora uses is of big importance. It is her at the end of the string, literally, her finger, her hand, up to her heart, they resonate together, and, underneath, as there is no peg she holds it on her leg, almost in her lap, so it is very much personal.

A Bach suite. We are familiar with it.
The tone is what gets always down first because it turns up immediately even before the building up of any harmony; it’s so beautiful. It fills up the space nicely. How well this instrument sounds. I begin to perceive the usual Bach-feeling, that is, a pretty nice start, I can say that it is genial, then the melody gets coiled in the labyrinth of complexity, we can do nothing, Ariadne has gone shopping for shoes, and the melodiousness remained in her handbag. 

Nora’s handling of the instrument is amazing, the complicated chords arise as little as 1.5 metres from me. The start makes me delighted, but I am lost after a few minutes, yet, I almost like it. 
Then something happens out of the blue. 

Next is a Dall’Abaco piece, so close that the previous closing accord and the beginning of this seem to be the same. Nora told us that she would play blocks of Bach and dall’Abaco. Those familiar with them will hear it, those who don’t will not, they are very similar at times in her opinion; she didn’t explain it away. 

For me - a piece of music is getting started from the another Galaxy. I find it very different. 
What is it like? Well, it is recreation, this is the right word, at least at the beginning, because it is melodious, virtuosic and very deep in one. 

The composer himself is strange for he played in the oldish mode. Remember, it’s a late century, so much that dall’Abaco lived at the very beginning of the 1800s. You cannot feel the straight delivery of the Heavenly Harmonies like in Bach’s music, however, he is not yet sobbing while leaning over the instrument, saying how happy or unhappy he is like his contemporaries in Romanticism. 

Rather, he finely scratches the Individual, sometimes dips into the emotions, then he shows it finely from a distance, slow sparks and inner fire at the frictions. 

All of his pieces are lost, almost himself as well, only his father’s portrait has remained, only these few Capriccios have survived the centuries, the notes, like a thin yet molecularly strong spider web, with which we can haul an entire music realm out of oblivion, the void, the Absolute Vacuum.

Then it goes on like this. Bach wrapped in dall’Abaco. 
Or just the opposite? What a cool idea. A Sandwich Spiritual, says Béla Hamvas. The divergent layers get marinated together. The bleak and sometimes soulless Bach suites somehow get filled with warmth and beauty and the looser Abaco pieces receive some fine seriousness, the repelling contrast is diminishing.

What Nóra does with the instrument is extraordinary. A bit above the world standard. She is a genuine professional who is at ease in playing - at least this is what it seems at first and from a distance. But we are sitting too close now… Her fingers are drumming on the fret board at the complicated chords and tiny little, very silent cracks can be heard as she pulls the strings so hard … you should just once try to keep one sole string on a cello … 

And all this in a way that she, apparently, doesn’t care about the technique; it’s OK, very much OK, it is the base, maybe it is -  but I have heard such playing very rarely even in records. What she is focusing on is the music itself. Some aristocratic chill and a slight distance is kept all the time. She is not like the ardent amateurs giving away their last molecule and exsanguinate in two minutes. She won’t tell us the message directly. Rather, she seems to concentrate or invest herself in the pattern of the musical tissue. She fully and completely leaves the rest to us so much that we must or rather may make a declaration or take a stand. She leaves us in peace in a way that we ponder about the whole thing for days …

Around halftime she stands up saying that the chair is creaking and asks if we don’t mind her sitting on another…only she heard the chair creaking but it annoyed her. I don’t think what annoyed her was that the creaking annoyed us … how kind of her it is. You will never ever experience something like this in the Music Halls.

At long last, a big applaud. Real. Honest. True. Not the artificial noise of an artificial audience. For the performance was extremely good. Nora is a professional, a twinkle of her eye betrays that she is fully aware that it was a brilliant performance, however, she will never admit it in words.

After the performance we have some fine wine and scones and a chit-chat. I am enjoying myself in the company of these people. Then she takes the instrument in her hands again, inviting the people to start singing, a few beats from a Bach choral. Sorry to say, we cannot sing although a few of us are singers, the two lines in Bach’s piece are two really different things indeed, not an easy cake… We are laughing. Finally, we ask her to play the dall’Abaco piece again from the beginning of the 2nd block, I say, I would rather leave and go out to the dark with this melody in my head … The glasses remain in the hands, the magic is complete, the light of the candles finely elongate, not even a hiss is heard although it was part of the conversation.
And the melody is coming with me on my way home and remains with me for a long time.

The concert touches me so much that I start fidgeting about the records that very night at home, then I click on Youtube, I search for these Bach suites, I watch the super stars and the views by 20 million. I pretend to like them but I can’t, no way, something is missing from them, something I heard an hour ago … how complicated job I have …

My friend reads this article, he says it’s quite OK, there is too much yakking [Hungarian slang says ‘much rice’] in it though, people scrolling Facebook are going to look at the photos … isn’t it as simple as Nora plays Bach extraordinarily and Bach is a great composer anyway? 
Well, I say, maybe, perhaps, but… 

...then, after all, we push in a dall’Abaco record to the SACD player just to sustain the balance of the world.

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Translated by Kenesei Andrea


Recercare Early Music Saloon

Thank you for the images.