Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello were once regarded as little more than technical exercises until Pablo Casals revealed their true stature in performances in the 1920s and recordings of the '30s that became legendary. Since then, the works have become the Everest that beckons, challenges and often defeats any serious artist of the instrument.
Peter Stumpf, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was not one of the ones defeated when he performed three of the suites Sunday afternoon at the Pali-Fekete Residence in Culver City in a Chamber Music in Historic Sites program sponsored by the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College.
Actually, in a kind of derring-do, Stumpf played the program twice, giving himself only about a half-hour break between the two performances. He played in the airy, two-story upstairs loft above the Pali Fekete-designed building that houses the studios of the architects, the Wilson restaurant and the Museum of Design Art and Architecture (MODAA).
Playing his 1684 Stradivarius, nicknamed "The General Kid," Stumpf performed the Suites Nos. 4 in E flat, 2 in D minor and 6 in D, moving, in the descriptive terms of another great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, from "Majesty and opacity" through "Sorrow and intensity" to "Sunlight."
In contrast to Rostropovich's recorded performance that runs nearly 80 minutes, however, Stumpf played the three in less than an hour. This meant leaner, less majesty in the E-flat Suite and less innerness in the D minor, although he gave due weight to the Sarabande of the latter, the sad heart of the piece.
He also avoided monotony by approaching the two works differently -- using shorter, more clipped phrasings in the E flat; longer, singing lines in the D minor. He also brought a lovely grace to the latter's Minuets.
Interestingly, Stumpf spoke most deeply and directly in probably the most virtuosic suite of the entire set, the symphonic No. 6 in D major, originally written for a five-string instrument and making what look like impossible demands on the performer of a normal cello.
Here, without pushing the echo effects to extremes, Stumpf was fleet, bold and kaleidoscopic in color, finding the right balance between rustic and courtly influences.
Although he played all three works with masterly control, it was the final suite that most liberated him and brought indoors the glorious sunlight of a warm Sunday afternoon. Rostropovich was right in his description of the work.