The ever-flexible Bach – Antoine Tamestit at Wigmore Hall

Antoine Tamestit performs two solo Bach suites and a new commission from Olga Neuwirth


Antoine Tamestit (soprano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 27 April 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 28 May


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of the Bach suites played by Tamestit himself. Because the piece by Olga Neuwirth is so new – this was in fact the first performance – it has not been recorded yet. Here is the link to the Bach:

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.1 (arranged for viola) (1724, 15 minutes)

Olga Neuwirth – Weariness heals wounds (2014, 11 minutes)

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.3 (arranged for viola) (1724, 19 minutes)

What about the music?

One sign of a great composer is surely the effectiveness of his music when heard on any instrument, not necessarily the one it was written for. J.S. Bach ranks among those whose music is incredibly versatile – Toccata and Fugue, Ave Maria and Sheep May Safely Graze just for starters! – and all have been successful in any number of guises.

So it is to a lesser extent with the solo cello suites, which transcribe for other stringed instruments – guitar and viola – very well.

The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has written for Tamestit before, in 2009 – a concerto for viola and orchestra. This much more private utterance, a response to the saturation posed by new media and some thoughts on how we can get away from that, takes a few quotations from the Concerto.

Performance verdict

These are excellent Bach performances, from a performer who is notable both for his technical command and expressive input. Tamestit ensures the Bach suites really dance, by taking pretty fast speeds but also giving plenty of air to the music. It suits the faster movements down to the ground, while the slower Sarabandes take time out for reflection.

The new piece Weariness heals wounds also gets a fine and concentrated performance. Tamestit clearly believes in this composer, and in the course of the ten minutes it is easy to hear the themes of frustration and saturation coming to the surface.

What should I listen out for?

Bach – Cello Suite no.1

1:37 – being up an octave from the cello original replaces the mellow sound of the lower instrument with a brighter viola. It works well as the dancing figures of the Prelude begin to work their magic. Towards the end an obsessive figure breaks out into a sunny finish.

3:42 – an Allemande, the first of the dance music, is relaxed and airy, and Tamestit adds to this feeling by slowing down at times in the more reflective passages. It is an effective technique.

7:50 – the Courante is a bit more lively, suggesting a quicker step in the dancing feet. Tamestit almost loses his way in the first half, with what seems like a memory lapse, but also adds some attractive ornamentation to Bach’s melodies, which is the performer’s prerogative here.

10:14 – the lovely Sarabande, a slower dance. Tamestit doesn’t let the bow rest on the string for too long, so the notes seem a bit shorter, and as a consequence they are lighter.

12:45 – the lively pair of Minuet begins, with a bracing first followed by a solemn second (beginning at 13:54 – and taken pretty fast by Tamestit here). As is customary in these suites, we hear the first Minuet again (14:45)

15:22 – the final movement in these Bach suites is always a Gigue, a dance of French origin in triple time that usually signs off the suite with some gusto. That is definitely the case here!


18:33 – quite a biting start, with two strings playing pitches very close together that sound like quarter tones. The mood is tense and – as in the title – given with a certain weariness.

The jarring notes return again, suggesting that the new media is grating somewhat? Then a more aggressive section begins, where the bow is positioned near the bridge of the instrument to create a scratchy sound. Discomfort abounds!

At 25:15 a semblance of a tune begins, but it is uneasy. Then at 26:04 the ‘G’ pitch asserts its importance before a series of virtuosic and sweeping runs. Again the use of quarter tones is in evidence, and when the melodies get longer Tamestit makes the viola sound bluesy and mournful. The piece ends with a sharply plucked note.

Bach – Cello Suite no.3

31:19 – there is a nice and slightly mischievous approach in the stop-start Tamestit applies here, with grand gestures followed by quite hurried phrases. It works well as the Prelude progresses through a number of different but utterly logical keys, before going through a quick series of movements over a ‘pedal’ note, after which it works to a big finish.

34:11 – quite a bouncy Allemande this one, genial too.

37:47 – a Courante with plenty of energy, bounding out of the blocks. If you were dancing to this one – the cello suites do after all have dance movements – you’d have to be pretty quick on your feet!

40:24 – a grand Sarabande, which might not be as weighty in the hands of the viola as it is on the cello, but which still makes a strong impression. As so often in the slower dances there is time for intensely concentrated thought.

43:44 – a genial pair of Bourrées comes into view – another dance Bach used for some of his solo instrument works. Bach often writes one in a major key but contrasts it – as here at 45:07 – with a more reserved one in the minor key. Once again the first Bourrée is repeated, coming back at 46:22.

47:06 – the Gigue swings into action with an energetic burst. There is some quite dissonant double stopping too (more than one string played at once)


Kurtág – Perpetuum mobile, one of the Signs, Games and Messages

51:19 – this piece is little more than a gruff introduction and a few jarring notes lasting little more than a minute! Yet as always with Kurtág, whose pieces are famously brief but incredibly concentrated, it takes longer to write about his music than to listen to it.

Want to hear more?

Not many composers wrote for the viola on its own, but the composer Max Reger – for whom Bach was a hero and inspiration – wrote three suites. They can be heard on Spotify here as part of an album of his chamber music for viola, played by Nobuko Imai, who is accompanied by Ronald Brautigam in the substantial Sonata for viola and piano. The album can be found here

For more concerts click here

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