Wispelwey “In the Moment” with Bach Suites

United StatesUnited StatesBach, Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello: Pieter Wispelwey (Baroque cello), presented by San Francisco Performances, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco. 9.11.2013 (HS)

Somehow both precise and devil-may-care, Pieter Wispelwey sat down in San Francisco’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church Saturday determined to make Bach’s cello suites something different. And, in performances that covered the first three suites in the afternoon and the remaining three in the evening, he did so in ways both maddening and thrilling.

Bach’s powerful and enigmatic compositions have been a Holy Grail for generations of cellists since Pablo Casals, in the 1930s, shook off two centuries of cobwebs and brought them before the general public. The individual movements are titled as French dances, each suite containing an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, preceded by a prelude, an extra dance—a bourrée, a gavotte or a menuet—inserted before the finale.

Because no original text survives—only copies that lack notations such as tempo markings, slurs and dynamics—every artist has plenty of leeway to stamp a performance with individuality. Wispelwey gave his audience this, in his only performance of these works on a short American tour.

This Dutch cellist, who caroms with ease among Baroque, Romantic and Modern music, has recorded these suites three times (most recently in 2012). Saturday he seemed more interested in moment-to-moment music-making than the grand architecture of these works. He stretched some phrases, compressed others, inserted hesitations and gave in to headlong rushes, all with a sense of improvisation that would have done a jazz artist proud.

This could have come off as mannered, until it became clear that he treated each individual movement in the six suites as its own personality study. If the music created images in Wispelwey’s imagination, he centered his interpretation on developing that character. Tempos remained steady only as long as the next breath. His hesitations between phrases would leave any real dancer off balance. He held the first notes of arpeggios or phrases longer than most soloists would, distorting rhythms further.

But then, moments such as the jauntiness of the Allemande in the Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, a finger-challenging exercise for any cellist, brought out a sprightliness missing from many performances. In No. 5 in C minor, the triple-stop chords of the prelude erupted with tremendous majesty, and the Sarabande in No. 5, taken at a glacial pace, took on the eerie chill of a winter’s night. He played this—and most of the music—with no vibrato, so that when he did introduce a touch of it for a sustained note it came off as a welcome, warm glow. By using subtle changes in dynamics Wispelwey made Bach’s occasional dissonances into aching moments.

This approached created an improvisational quality that made the music seem more like a conversation than a monologue. Leaving aside the question of with whom the solo artist may be having this musical conversation, the results could be fascinating. In Suite No. 1 in G Major, for example, after the steady rhythm of Menuet I, the shift into Menuet II introduced hesitations on almost every phrase, and a much darker tone, almost as if a second voice were issuing some sort of warning. The return of Menuet I arrived as a dramatic reaffirmation.

Wispelwey’s willingness to stick his neck out was most apparent in the Allemandes. In No. 1, he seemed entranced by the double-stop and triple-stop chords, letting them ring for an extra beat, creating the impression of stopping to look around while on a country walk. No. 2 started in tempo and gradually spread out rhythmically as the movement progressed. No. 3 took on a shiny brilliance in a fleet tempo and crisp articulation. No. 4, as mentioned, was unexpectedly sprightly. He went for a stately grace in No. 5, slowing the tempo to something closer to a Sarabande. In No. 6 he left stateliness behind to create a series of individualistic episodes within a single Allemande, relishing every repeat.

With this attention to detail, the overall structure could have been lost, or at least minimized. Most cellists, for example, underline the architecture of No. 5 by emphasizing a relationship between the grandiose dotted-eighth figures that dominate the Prelude with the lively dotted-eighth figures in the finishing Gigue. In this performance, these gestures occupied very different worlds.

In another aspect that takes some attitude adjustment, Wispelwey likes to tune his cello down one whole step (to A = 392 Hz), which made all the suites sound a bit growly in timbre. The exception was No. 6. Wispelwey’s technical command—and the fact that much of the music lies high above the staff—made that one the most satisfying, and showed the most brilliance.

Perhaps the reason for that was that his iconoclastic modus operandi had become familiar enough to appreciate what it accomplished. But I also had the sense that his playing became more assured as he progressed through the suites in order. He seemed to let cerebral glosses inform his interpretation of Nos. 1 and 2, but No. 3 freed up into something more expressive. Likewise, in the evening program, Nos. 4 and No. 5 seemed drawn toward darker qualities, setting up the vividness of No. 6.

As an encore, he returned to the Prelude from No. 1. This time he gave it a deftness of touch and sense of freedom that was missing the first time. Did he play it better? Differently? Or was it context? In the end, it matters only that this moment put the cap on an endlessly fascinating day of Bach.


Harvey Steiman

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