Alisa Weilerstein’s Perceptive and Persuasive Survey of the Bach Cello Suites

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Alisa Weilerstein (cello). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 8.2.2017. (MB)

Bach, Suite no.1 in G major, BWV 1007; Suite no.2 in D minor, BWV 1008; Suite no.3 in C major, BWV 1009; Suite no.4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010; Suite no.5 in C minor, BWV 1011; Suite no.6 in D major, BWV 1012

Would it be too daunting a prospect, or too tiring an experience, to hear all six Bach Cello Suites in a single concert? Not even slightly. ‘Journey’ is doubtless by now far too well worn a cliché to be admissible for me here. Nevertheless, in a programme interview, Alisa Weilerstein framed its use so well that I did not even notice: ‘To perform all the Suites one after another is a transcendental experience, a remarkable journey for both musician and listener. There is an almost childlike innocence to the opening of the G major Suite, and from there the music blossoms and broadens, and step by step the emotional range expands. The same goes for the rhythmic range: by the time you reach the Sixth Suite its Allemande is almost free-form.’ Part of that framing was, of course, her performance, which more than held the attention from beginning to end.

Weilerstein opened the G major Suite with warm tone, a tempo that seemed just right, telling rubato, and a startling, yet never remotely self-regarding, variety of articulation and dynamic range. Following that opening Prelude, the Allemande sounded soulful, even dreamy, yet always directed. A swift Courante contrast proved just as flexible. This was not playing that exhibited undue respect for bar-lines. The energy generated was musical, never artificially whipped up. Here as elsewhere, the Sarabande is at the heart of the Suite; this heart sang as if it were issuing a declaration of love both courtly and Romantic, almost a major-mode ‘black pearl’ (to borrow from Wanda Landowska). The pair of Minuets that followed seemed almost to exhibit different musical ‘characters’ through their differing articulations. The good, honest enjoyment of the Gigue put me in mind again of the Goldberg Variations, this time the world of the ‘Quodlibet’. There is good as well as ill in German provincialism – at least at its best. Not for nothing, I think, did my thoughts take me briefly to Thomas Mann and his Doctor Faustus, before it all ‘went wrong’.

The Prelude to the D minor Suite offered a songful lament, never maudlin, keenly felt. Its Allemande sounded similar yet different: a sister, perhaps, followed by an energetic sibling Courante. The Sarabande-heart spoke unmistakeably of sorrow, of loss, even perhaps of tragedy. It met its defiant response in the first Minuet, its aristocratic dance so clearly delineated it could almost be seen. Following the relative foil of the second Minuet, there was greater defiance still, I think, in the concluding Gigue, its character much in the mould of the first Minuet, extending and developing what I, perhaps too subjectively, cannot help but characterise as its ‘point of view’. Some might here have found Weilerstein’s rubato too much; for me, it always had rhetorical justification.

From the simple building block of its opening scales, the C major Prelude developed in just the way Weilerstein in that quotation from the programme interview had suggested. The extraordinary proliferation of the Allemande had me think, eccentrically or otherwise, of Boulez. Messagesequisse? Its flightier cousin, the Courante, proved flightier only in a superficial sense; there was neither lack of character nor of heart here, just different character. Breadth did not preclude chiaroscuro in Weilerstein’s (very broad) reading of the Sarabande, quite the contrary. A catchy, good-natured performance of the first Bourrée benefited greatly from an almost Mozartian (Trio-like) complement in the second. They made me smile: not something to be sniffed at. The freedom (and organisation) of the Gigue suggested Bartók – but such is Bach.

From C major to E-flat major: the very different tonality (especially for the cello) made itself felt immediately. These were new challenges, new opportunities; perhaps this Prelude even spoke with a new seriousness. Likewise the Allemande, although its kinship to its predecessor’s proliferative qualities remained clear. The opening phrase of the Courante sounded almost Purcellian in its insouciance, swiftly offset by undeniable complexity. A sense of austere, although never puritanical, relationship to the world of the viola da gamba characterised the Sarabande. Noticeable reduction in vibrato was part of that; just as important, however, was the communication of harmonic rhythm. The ebullience of the opening to the first Bourrée suggested an opening phrase to an imaginary (middle-period?) Beethoven quartet; the second was again heard very much in ‘trio’ vein. If Weilerstein’s tuning faltered somewhat in the Gigue, the spirit of this finale, runaway in the best sense, was very much present throughout.

Next to the relative minor: C. The Prelude’s opening section sounded more overtly and multifariously tragic than anything we had heard previously. Resonances from Monteverdi to Mahler and beyond were suggested, all the more powerful for the lack of any exaggeration on Weilerstein’s part; any pointing always had a discernible purpose. It was not only the key that made me think occasionally of the opening movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Mozart came to mind in the fugal writing and playing, so suggestive that there was no chance of missing the ‘missing’ voices of parts thereof. The Allemande sounded similarly haunted by ghosts of the musical past and future (interestingly, given the key, never Beethoven). It sounded as if an old Italian operatic lament, transformed, even transfigured, and always it danced. Bartók reappeared, with more than a dash of the stile antico, in the Courante. And Beethoven himself, the Beethoven of the late quartets, seemed a guiding presence in the world of the Sarabande, perhaps a more expansive Webern too. Every note counted, without pedantry. The dignity of response in the first Gavotte and the quicksilver genius of the second led us to an implacable Gigue. And yet, it moved.

The distinctive range (tenor, one might say) of the D minor Suite presented us with yet another, distinct modernity. Rapt lyricism and well-nigh Ligetian swarming were the stuff of the Prelude. Development and proliferation again characterised, utterly distinctively, the Allemande and Courante, the latter no less rich for its different character. Now the Sarabande seemed cut from the same cloth as the great opening chorus to the St Matthew Passion – whatever the obvious differences.  A nervy, vigorous first Minuet once again led, with Classical ‘naturalness’ – I thought of Haydn – to its sibling. There was no mistaking the note of triumph in the final Gigue: simple and complex, a true, irrepressible force for unity forged through diversity and development.

Mark Berry

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