INKPOT#78 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH Cello Suites. Wispelwey (Channel)

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) The Six Cello Suites
BWV 1007-1012

Baroque cello (Barak Norman, 1710)
violoncello piccolo (anon., 18th century)

2 discs [61:35 + 78:28] budget-price

by Chia Han-Leon

SIX SUITES FOR CELLO? by Pieter Wispelwey (trans. Ian Gaukroger)The need is strong to imagine these pieces having just been written – as fresh music, without the burden of interpretations, connotations and obligatory associations. Music that simply refers to earlier music: in short, new, modern, intriguing music. Music for a single cello, but written by a composer with an enormous aptitude for the rich, polyphonic baroque language. Why though? What was Bach’s aim? An experiment, an upbeat to compositions for solo violin?

Whatever the case, the endeavour must have amused him. Perhaps it cost him no trouble at all and maybe he even wrote them in a flash.

Undoubtedly the commission, whether or not autonomous, to write suites for solo cello was particularly challenging and unusual. The idea probably made him grin from ear to ear…

The playing here, the instruments, the music is all wonderful, if you take my word for it. But after all this, perhaps the greatest thing about this album is the personal tribute to the composer and his cello suites written by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey. It is so… really reflected in the performances that I think I shall say that the sincerity and the humanity of his essay already gives his recording the fully favourable review it deserves. Instead of treating the Suites one by one, Wispelwey examines each dance movement in turn, framing each with an introduction and a conclusion (quoted in this article in the insets).

So if you ask me if a player could ever “review” his own performance – here is the best example, and I embraced it fully. This album is perhaps the best instance of a self-contained tribute, education and showcase of its music and performer. Wispelwey is aware even of the dangers of writing on this macroscopic music, when he describes the music as “less pompous than the words it can tempt us to use.” And tempt it does, and I am guilty of being tempted far too many times. In almost every instance, I must agree that words cannot do justice to this music, nor its performer here. For this I offer my profoundest apologies to Bach and Mr Wispelwey. Perhaps in time, we will find the right words…

Pieter Wispelwey Time passes so fast with this music. Time… 250 years… The simplicity of Bach’s writing is often forgotten when one listens to players like Wispelwey. The score of the opening prelude of the First Suite, with its endless semiquavers, shows no indication of tempo or rhythmic variation (except for the two pauses) and yet it is suffused with the myriad beauty of rubato. It is all up to the cellist to use this thing of human variation, that human art called music. Someone once asked me, while I was playing this track to him and showing him the score, how is it that the rhythm of the semiquavers are so strict, yet the player does not obey the score at all?


Wispelwey never forces his personality on the music – it comes across as entirely natural. Warmth and sincerity is caught in the fast movements, while his slow sarabandes are loving, nobly anguished, questioning… but always human. Listening to him, the cello seems to disappear, and there is just something human left. Thinking upon that, Wispelwey himself seems to disappear, and there is just something universal left. It is as if, if one could fill the infinity of the star-filled universe with air, one would hear this music.

WORD OF THANKS by Pieter Wispelwey (trans. Ian Gaukroger)
… Let us imagine once again how this domain was entered when the great Bach humbly began to write down our notes one by one. Let us also remember that it was a ca.35-year-old Bach who concentrated his powers to channel his unbridled creativity and energy – a man whose brain functioned hundreds of times more quickly than his quill could write (although that must have been impressive too). His was a fantasy which covered an enormous spectrum, just as the suites encompass the entire spectrum of simplicity to sublimity (among others).It is the stratifications that makes the Suites so hypnotic, the endless evocativeness while using only a single cello. A fascinating paradox, this alchemy in dance form. It is not unfathomably profound music by a deeply religious composer advanced in years, nor it it biblical in the thoroughly serious sense. That would not be moving. Above all it is magical music and possibly biblical in the sense that it narrates stories in a comprehensible language, from the archaic to the refined, about the immeasurable dimensions and variations of the human experiment.

For that reason we are grateful: grateful that these pieces exist, that they seem to be about everything, that we are moved without being able to grasp them or even know whether we are meant to grasp them, that we enjoy them quia absurdum est.

Wispelwey calls the courante of the Fifth Suite “clenched with power”, and certainly he drives it along with great strength, but also a “masculine” grace. His touch is gracefully light, and his instruments respond with amazing, intricate detail and sensitivity, even sensuality. The voices of the cello (Barak Norman, 1710) and the violoncello piccolo (anon. 18th century) used are light and articulate, with a texture most pleasing to the ear. The menuets are light, youthfully light; or urging, but also light, and happy in an an earnest, untainted way. Where the music is more vigorous, the cellist skips, leaps and dances with turning, curving joy.

The opening prelude of Suite No.4 positively dances.. what is it?… Unbelievable, I told myself inside my head as I listened to this … it is like light itself dancing. Shafts of E-flat flittering, scintillating in the air. And the light gathers itself, corsucating with more and more weight… then darkness wandering… then the dance of light returns.

Wispelwey plays with such honesty. His passion is tempered but sincere, but never overboard. In fact what I love so much about this entire set is the total serenity of his utterance in whatever key, whatever level of discipline or passion. At no point does he seem as if he is trying to challenge old or acknowledged ways of playing this music, or trying to outwit another cellist in a competition. The playing is completely detached from the outside world, and yet it is for the world, relishing in its beauty, almost showing our own beauty to ourselves.

Even in deep melancholia Wispelwey finds something consoling to tell us. In the two boures of Suite No.4, the first seems like a grown man reliving his childhood, the second simply made me smile with its open-hearted humour.

It is just like Bach.

Chia Han-Leon still has sore-thumb memories of trying to learn to play the cello.

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