Dallas — J.S. Bach wrote six dance suites for solo cello that are staples of the cellist’s repertoire, and have been transcribed for a wide variety of other instruments, from viola and double bass to marimba. However, it is relatively rare to hear the suites played on Baroque cello and singular to hear the sixth suite played on the smaller, five-stringed violoncello piccolo. But Saturday night at the ornately lovely Preston Hollow home of Tom and Becky Fennell, a few lucky Dallas Bach Society patrons got to hear just that.
In November, Dallas Bach Society principal cello Eric Smith performed the odd-numbered suites in a pair of house concerts much like Saturday’s, in a performance reviewed here. On Saturday, he performed suites 2, 4, and 6.
These house party concerts are a true luxury, with a catered menu, passed hors d’oeuvres, valet parking, and wine and champagne. They take place in some of the most elegant homes in the Metroplex, and are a fine way to meet like-minded music lovers. But on Saturday, the real draw wasn’t the dessert tray or the chit-chat: it was Eric Smith’s playing.
Smith is a Baroque cellist of singular accomplishments, who just keeps getting better over the years. While there may be cellists who are technically more adept, there are few if any who are as knowledgeable about Baroque performance practice on cello, and who employ that knowledge so effectively in their own playing. Hearing Smith perform is an education, in the best possible way. Smith makes the beauty of Bach’s string writing evident, yes, but also provides insight into phrasing or interpretive choices or tempi.
The second and fourth suites were performed on Smith’s 18th-century German Baroque cello, but after intermission, Smith switched to a piccolo cello. This smaller, five-string cello—it adds one higher string, an E string—is used only in a very limited number of works, and Bach’s sixth cello suite is premier among them.
While this final cello suite has been transcribed for modern cello, it is an awkward and tricky piece on an instrument lacking the higher string. On the piccolo cello, the piece was a revelation. It is still technically demanding, to be sure, but lacks the contortionist fingerings and top-of-the-range timbre that’s characteristic of most recordings and performances. The piece sounded, to this ear, more characteristically Bachian than in modern or even Baroque cello versions.
Eric Smith and Dallas Bach Society repeated this program in a free performance on Sunday at St. Matthew Cathedral. This was a wonderful alternative for those unable to attend the house concert version. It would be a great gift to the music lovers of Dallas if these free concerts became a regular offering.