Arts concert review

When better doesn’t have to be bigger

Sergey Malov performs Bach’s cello suites on the violoncello da spalla, a rare five-stringed miniature cello

J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites No. 2, 4 and 6
Sergey Malov
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Sept. 30, 2018

Sergey Malov made his Boston debut on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, performing three Bach cello suites on the violoncello da spalla — a small cello played horizontally using a shoulder strap. Tuned identically to a cello, this rare instrument, which is believed to have originated in the eighteenth century, also possesses an additional fifth string tuned to the high E.

Clad in puffy sleeves, a flared waistcoat, and a red cravat, Malov stepped onto the stage looking as though he had walked out of a different era. True to his appearance, his music also carried a rather Baroque style. With delicate, light bowing, sparingly used vibrato, and liberal additions of his own ornamentations and chords, the Bach suites took on a decidedly medieval character under his antique bow.

The concert was held in the intimately small Calderwood Hall, which features a central stage surrounded by four levels of seating. With his audience surrounding him on all four sides, and looking down from above, Malov began to slowly revolve around the stage to face them in turns, and his renditions (especially of the faster movements) became markedly dance-like.

After the haunting, grave initial movements of Bach’s Suite No. 2, Malov launched into the third movement, “Courante,” sowing urgency and tension throughout the music and demonstrating his technical ability. The violoncello da spalla looked unwieldy to play — held like a guitar and bowed vertically —  but Malov played it almost effortlessly, leaning backwards and forwards to reach the strings and navigating crossings with easy grace.

Following the buoyant, comparatively uplifting Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, Malov concluded his program with Suite No. 6, evidently wanting to save the best for the last. It was in Suite No. 6 that I felt his instrument truly shine; its full chromatic range and additional string were finally put to use. At times in this Suite, when it climbed into high registers that drew somewhat strained sounds from regular cellos, I thought the violoncello da spalla sounded more pleasant and natural than its larger counterpart.

The final movements of Suite No. 6, “Gavotte I,” “Gavotte II,” and the “Gigue,” were heavily interpreted and enriched with many chords of the artist's own contrivance, producing a layered, rich effect that lingered in the hall when finished.

All in all, this concert was a more than just a historical reproduction — with his unique instrument, Sergey Malov captured the past with a personal touch of his own.