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Violist Jodi Levitz completes her traversal of the Bach solo cello suites

The title page for Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript of the Bach cello suites, the oldest surviving source
The title page for Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript of the Bach cello suites, the oldest surviving source
from Wikipedia (public domain)

In February of 2013, violist Jodi Levitz gave a Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at which she performed three of the six solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1008 in D minor, BWV 1009 in C major, and BWV 1010 in E-flat major. Last night she returned to the Recital Hall to complete the set, performing BWV 1007 in G major and BWV 1011 in C minor in the first half and following the intermission with BWV 1012, played in the key of G major, rather than the original D major. Once again she preceded her performance with introductory remarks, as engaging as they were last year. She did not repeat last year’s justification for playing this music on viola, devoting most of her attention to the idea of a suite as a collection of dance forms and making the case that understanding something about those dances would contribute to both performing and listening to the music.

Those who read this site (as well as my national site) regularly probably know that I am highly sympathetic to this position. However, it is a topic that needs to be approached with some degree of caution, simply because there continue to be vigorously contentious arguments over just how those dances were executed. Furthermore, Levitz herself observed that, when Bach composed these suites during his service as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, between 1717 and 1723, most of the dance forms he was using had gone out of fashion. I would therefore suggest that this music may be more of a reflection of Bach’s memory of those dances, rather than the dances themselves.

Nevertheless, in trying to learn more about the nature of those dances, Levitz chose a good source: Der vollkommene Capellmeister (the consummate kapellmeister) by Johann Mattheson, published in 1739. As Bach’s contemporary, Mattheson also had to draw upon memory rather than “immediate” observation when writing about these dance forms. However, George J. Buelow, author of the Grove Music Online entry for Mattheson, in discussing this book, describes him as “someone of enormous learning in musical literature; but he was not simply a codifier of fact, and much of this work’s value lies in the originality of the presentation and the author’s reflections on the most important aspects of the musical thought of his time.” One might say that, through his efforts, Mattheson established the foundation for musicology as it is currently practiced.

Levitz did not deep-end on Mattheson’s description of the dance forms. She kept to salient properties that distinguished the different forms. The Allemande was stately, while the Courante could be described as rushed. The Gigue, on the other hand, was a lively transformation of the rustic jig found north of the English Channel.

In other words, from Mattheson’s more extensive discourse on this subject material, Levitz harvested particular characteristics that informed how she performed the suite movements. With that knowledge as context for the evening, I was particularly struck by her own body movement in performing each of the suites. Clearly, she could not reproduce the dances (or Mattheson’s impressions of those dances), given that her arms were “otherwise engaged;” but it was hard to ignore the footwork that played out in parallel with her performance and how those steps seem to have emerged from a synthesis of her understanding of Mattheson and her approach to interpreting Bach. The result was a stunning “total theater” experience, quite possibly more satisfying than any attempt to provide choreography for this music.

Levitz’ attention to body movement also seemed to reflect a more general effort to frame the performance of each suite within a contour delimiting the expenditure of energy. Clearly, each movement (including the opening Prelude, which is improvisatory in nature) has its own characteristic energy level; but that level is subjected to an ongoing progression, just as the underlying harmonic grammar establishes a structure of progression. Levitz’ approach to energy was particularly noticeable in her control of repeated sections.

It was clearly important that the end of a section about to be repeated not establish finality. Through her control of both dynamics and tempo, Levitz had a knack for approaching the end of a first iteration that would provide an “energy kick” to begin the repetition, making it clear that there was still more to the journey. I have encountered this technique in other performers, but Levitz was particularly impressive in how she could apply it to reinforce the character of each of the different suite movements.

Most importantly, however, was that each suite performance was positively vibrant with a sense of immediacy. Last year I wrote about Levitz’ “jazzy side” in dealing with Bach’s ever inventive capacity for prolongation. When we listen to jazz, we assume a priori that “performance” is not going to be some straightforward matter of “reproducing a document.” Levitz clearly appreciates that such an assumption is just as valid when one is performing Bach, particularly when one is playing solo. The result was an account of Bach that was just as engaging as anything coming out down the street at the SFJAZZ Center; and, when one factors in the many ways in which Levitz infused Bach’s music with her own personality, the result could easily have been even more engaging.