The spine of the Barbican’s Bach weekend was provided by John Eliot Gardiner’s three programmes of cantatas with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, but the other events grouped around them were just as full of interest and novelty, too. A concert by Solomon’s Knot had included four of the motets, and Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout played violin sonatas, while the Goldberg Variations and three of the cello suites came from Jean Rondeau and Jean-Guihen Queyras respectively.
Rondeau was a pupil of the celebrated harpsichordist Blandine Verlet, and seems to have acquired a cult following in his native France. But other than prefacing this performance of the Goldberg with a statement of the main theme that was almost overwhelmed by ornamentation, before then playing the aria as Bach indicated, there was little evidence of the eccentricity and irreverence on which that reputation has been based. In fact, it was a rather sober, deliberate affair, with tempi that were generally on the slow side. With most of the repeats observed, it lasted 75 minutes. By comparison, the later and more measured of Glenn Gould’s famous recordings clocks in at just 51 minutes.
But it can’t just be the beard, long hair and casual clothes that get Rondeau’s fans so excited, and just occasionally there were glimpses of the kind of playing that suggests a real pedigree – in the perfectly balanced virtuosity with which he dispatched the bravura variations, for instance, and in the exemplary clarity with which he unfolded so many of the canons.
But it was all so po-faced, so lacking in visceral excitement. Even the final variations, the quodlibet, had an almost funereal tread to it.
After such self-consciously artful Bach playing, Queyras’s account of the first three cello suites came as rather a relief. His playing had a wonderful fluency and naturalness to it, without a hint of grandstanding or attention-seeking. Other interpreters perhaps dig more expressive profundity out of the sarabandes than Queyras did, especially in the second suite in D minor, and there were moments especially in the third suite, in C major, when his fleetness threatened to seem a bit glib, but it was wonderfully accomplished all the same.