It’s probably best not to question why Johann Sebastian Bach has become a staple of end of the year programming. Better simply to revel in the knowledge that we’ll be granted generous musical offerings as the night’s grow long. Alongside the Brandenbergs, Magnificats and masses that populate New York City’s December concert agendas, the Chamber Music Society has added the master’s works for solo instruments, which many – or some (or at least this reviewer) – consider to be his most sublime.

Paul O'Dette
© Tristan Cook

The CMS first presented a solo Bach program in 2016, explaining rather cheekily that Bach’s complexities force a musician to become a chamber ensemble. The second edition was presented on 10th December at Alice Tully Hall with some rare listening opportunities in both instrumentation and repertoire. Less often heard works for lute and organ sat alongside a violin partita and a cello suite that bordered on perfection. 

The lute opened the concert, with Paul O’Dette playing the G minor Suite, BWV 995. The little lute, soft but clear, filled out refrains familiar from the Fifth Cello Suite (Bach reworked it for lute) in the large hall. Bach’s solo works allow the performer to play within the fluidity of time and with impulse of the moment; O’Dette’s phrases rolled gently atop unseen waves, pausing and drifting with exquisite expressiveness.

Gilles Vonsattel
© Tristan Cook

A wise pianist approaches Bach’s keyboard works with delicacy. The temptation to throw open the pianoforte’s throttle must be great but doesn’t serve the music, written for humbler machines. Gilles Vonsattel displayed such wisdom, maintaining a measured repose in a fairly deliberate reading of the French Suite no. 3 in B minor, BWV 814. Bella Hristova took the prelude of the Violin Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, at a brisk pace, as if galloping into a soirée. The following Loure was met at a tempo more manageable to the ears, although she fared spectacularly even at the breakneck tempo; It was a stunning display of proficiency. Like Vonsattel, Hristova delivered an energetic and virtuosic performance.

Bella Hristova
© Tristan Cook

The truly rare opportunity of the evening wasn’t a lesser known work but the chance to hear, and see, the hall’s magnificent cubist masterpiece of an organ, given to the hall by Alice Tully herself in 1974. With its monumental face and its crystal clear tones, it’s surprising the magnificent instrument isn’t deployed more often (and this, on Messiaen’s birthday no less). Stephen Tharp’s selection from Bach’s organ book was a serviceable one, the Partitas on O Gott du framer Gott, BWV 814. Tharp built slowly, stopping just short of rattling the rafters, making thorough but tasteful of the instrument’s 61 speaking stops.

Stephen Tharp
© Tristan Cook

It was surely not curatorial happenstance that had the Cello Suite no. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, end the night. Making a nice bookend against the opening lute suite, it was the strongest piece and performance of the program. ‘Perfection’ is a hard standard, especially when held against members of the same organization, but where much of the program displayed grand proficiency and O’Dette in particular stood out for his engaging expressivity, Colin Carr brought heart and mind together – unhurried, uncomplicated, precise beyond measure, his cello not reciting but singing, the final Gigue almost teasing in its slow and purposeful procession. Carr realized a perfect melding, in a sense, of form and function, where the form is notes on a page (although all the musicians played without scores) and the function is relating the expression of awe and wonder at the core of Bach’s art.

Colin Carr
© Tristan Cook