Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Sigiswald Kuijken

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1 April 2014 4 stars



The publicity surrounding Sigiswald Kuijken’s introduction of the violoncello da spalla (shoulder cello) to London audiences was impressive. For instance, Kuijken’s appearance on BBC 2’s ‘Newsnight’ programme and an Evening Standard article drew considerable attention to Kuijken’s championing the instrument. Unfortunately, the marketing went into overdrive, attributing sole ownership of the re-introduction of the violoncello da spalla in modern times to Kuijken. This was a sentiment which Kuijken himself seemed happy to let float around during his OAE Extras pre-concert discussion with an unnamed interviewer. The programme notes for the concert also supported this motion. In the section on Kuijken’s biography, 2004 is specified as the year when Kuijken’s reintroduced the violoncello da spalla, “very probably the instrument Bach had in mind when writing his six cello solos”, into practical performance.

Notwithstanding Kuijken’s impressive championing the instrument, he was not the first to do so. For instance, the Australian Mark Merwyn Smith discussed the instrument at length (in every dimension of the word) in the 1998 Bach-Jahrbuch (pp. 63-81) and he has been playing it for a long time, although possibly only in Australia. The Dutch Lambert Smit has also been experimenting with the instrument, and he advanced the arguable notion (in Chelys, 2004, pp. 45-58) that Bach wrote his cello suites for the violoncello da spalla. Yet, in the above mentioned programme notes for the 25th March Kuijken OAE concert, Baroque specialist Lindsay Kemp attributes this discovery solely to Kuijken (who also implied his pioneering discovery during his pre-concert talk). Kuijken is a fascinating and endearing personality with great deal of knowledge; his talent and drive place him on the top. Nevertheless, credit is also due to the lesser known pioneers such as Smith and Smit.      

Surprisingly, Lindsay Kemp misquotes Mattheson (Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre, Hamburg, 1713) by attributing Mattheson’s violoncello and viola di spala comments to the violoncello da spalla. (Kuijken also referred to Mattheson, arguably incorrectly, in his pre-concert talk). And Kemp declares that ‘No shoulder cello survives today in its original form.’ However, he cannot be sure. There are several candidates hidden in museums – I for one saw several – and, for instance, Mark Merwyn Smith plays an instrument made in 1720.

The actual concert was a testimony to the discipline, stamina and flexibility of the OAE and their guest players. This was Kuijken’s concert and they all delivered with dedication. Kuijken stood centre stage with his violoncello da spalla, a small cello played like a viola but held by a strap and resting on the breast-bone (instead of under the chin). Kuijken led all pieces on the programme, whether a Vivaldi cello concerto (here allocated to the violoncello da spalla) or Brandenburg concertos Nos. 3 and 6. Kuijken’s approach to Baroque music is, as apparently he says in rehearsals, vertical; supposedly he opposes horizontal playing. What came across (to this pair of ears) were mostly well-chosen tempi, strong rhythms but, frustratingly, a distinctive lack of cantabile. Admittedly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I was struggling with Kuijken’s interpretation of the slow movement of Bach’s D minor concerto for two violins. It was intelligent, stylish but, for me, also soulless. Kuijken’s virtuosity on his da spalla was matched by the virtuosity of his OAE and guest players. Indeed, the speed of the last movement in Brandenburg concerto No.3 was breath-taking. With other groups of musicians this movement in this speed could have turned into an utter scramble. However, on this concert it was an interesting and perfectly executed interpretation of what a 12/8 time-signature might mean. Kuijken’s challenge remains open for thoughts.

By Agnes Kory