by Tim Finholt

On October 3, 1998, Anner Bylsma performed the first three Bach Suites for Solo Cello at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Victoria, BC. The concert was sponsored by Early Music Society of the Islands, which is "committed to the idea that artistically successful performances of early music are historically informed. All concerts presented by the Society feature original instruments, historical performance practices and accurate scores;" or in this case, potentially accurate second hand copies of scores.

After interviewing Anner Bylsma (see interview this month), this was one concert I couldn't miss. I had to see if what we discussed was true. Will I yearn for flowing lines? Does varying the bowings in sequences and other similar passages add discernible variety and interest to the performance? Will I miss vibrato? Will I prefer the timbre of a baroque cello and gut strings to that of a modern cello with steel strings? These were the questions that preoccupied me as I took my seat.

My contemplative state was quickly jarred by an announcement that Mr. Bylsma's originally scheduled flight was canceled and that he had to take a later one that day. To brighten his jetlagged day further, his luggage had been temporarily lost, and would be delivered to the church very soon, perhaps before the intermission. As a result, he would be performing the first half of the concert in the clothes he wore on the plane. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, he wasn't wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts.

After joking about tying a special knot in his tie in lieu of wearing his tux, he sat down to play -- beautifully -- and all my questions were answered. In a sense, the questions became irrelevant, because the performance felt so right, or so "true" as he calls it. He has definitely transcended the "Head vs. Heart" dichotomy.

I never once felt as if he were dispassionately playing the manuscript, playing Bach's notes and nothing more. His phrasing was very clear and wonderfully human, so no sense of line was missed. His (Bach's?) varying of bowings in sequences gave the music a syncopated feel, which definitely added interest and a sense of playfulness to the music. He used vibrato only sparingly, but, because of his profound expressive ability with the bow, vibrato became more of a tool for adding variety and interest, not merely an expectation. And what a gorgeous velvety resonance his instrument had, which you don't hear on modern instruments. I found myself content to just sit back and enjoy his performance.

So the ultimate question then becomes, "Do we want to play in this manner?" Yes, we'd all like to be able to play like him, but do we agree with the Early Music Society's belief that "artistically successful performances of early music are historically informed?" If we answer "yes," then we each have a lot of work ahead of us, and a lot of unlearning to do. If we answer "no," are we just being lazy? Or can one genuinely "disagree" with the Baroque aesthetic, if such a question even makes sense?

I'll leave these questions to you.

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