After last year’s presentation of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, Natalia Khoma brought it to Piccolo Spoleto again, this time at First Presbyterian Church.
For the concert on May 29, she played the first three suites of the six. Her interpretation was rich and colorful. Her skills allowed her to add layers, change volumes and vary tempos while performing. All these, integrated with her graceful appearance, made her even more charming.
Khoma, a native Ukrainian, is a renowned cellist and a cello professor at College of Charleston. Among her competition wins is the Budapest Pablo Casals Competition, named after the Spanish cellist who played a crucial role in popularizing the Bach cello suites.
These suites were largely unknown until Casals recorded a full version of all six in 1939. They then became a peak that seemingly every cello maestro tries to reach at some point in their career.
Unlike Casals’ deep interpretation of the Prelude of Suite No. 1, Khoma’s playing is brisk and absorbing. Her first note in Menuet—bright, quick and forte—was a potent contrast to the mournful Sarabande. Her refreshing articulation of the beginning was joined by an elastic and elegant reinvention of it in terms of melody and sound intensity. It enriched the acoustics and added layers to the suite.
The second suite in D minor, in contrast to the first one, is darker. The lines lingered in her strings, her fingers, the hall and the church. The mournful notes were like endless sadness and gloom. However, the pace in the Allemande was unexpected. In her interpretation, the lines and notes plunged forward in an incredibly fast tempo that still captured every nuance.
Yet the Courante was somehow even speedier. With greater contrast in volume and pitch in phrases, the emotion became so fierce that when the final crescendo came, you felt the agony and drama falling on the audience. During this suite, Khoma kept wiping the sweat off her head and fixing her hair between movements. Her dress strap also fell off her shoulder, which seemed to distract her. (The strap fell from time to time throughout the concert.)
After going backstage for a while, Khoma came back and played the third suite in C major. Her melodic short notes leaped over the fluid bass. While the strong resonance in the First Presbyterian Church sometimes blurred the piece’s echoes, the emotions were amplified. Khoma’s seamless playing then integrated the layers, the volumes and the richness of sound in the Gigue. With successive fortes near the end, she ended this journey with an intensified and prolonged coda.