Pieter Wispelwey’s tour de force at Ozawa Hall on July 22, 2010, comprised all six of the J.S. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, offered in three sets, with two intermissions and a single encore. His quiet repeating of the opening Prelude after the well-deserved final ovation gave a sweet symmetry to the evening’s expanding cascades of gorgeous sound, intense illuminations of the contrapuntal structures within and across the recurring themes of the succeeding suites, and kaleidoscopic expressions of connection with his magnificent instrument. (These included spontaneous facial expressions that reflected not only shadings of tonality but snippets of conversation among the upper, middle, and lower voices of the inventions.) Wispelwey’s thoughtful performance was powered and magnified by his intelligent, even experimental exploitation of the hall’s remarkably resonant acoustics. At the end of this fulfilling evening, his sounding again that familiar theme with neither dynamic swelling nor vibrato trembling gave solace to performer and listener alike, much as Bach’s humble restatement of the beginning Aria permits a virtuoso pianist to close the Goldberg Variations with such calm after the jousting in the preceding competitive clamor. But this occurred three hours later, a long distance from Glenn Gould’s 51-minute “slow version” of the Goldberg.
Wearing black tuxedo pants, a formal white shirt, and a cream-colored silk vest, Wispelwey cut an elegant, athletic figure. Taking this on from memory must be an exhausting intellectual, psychological, and physical marathon for the cellist – Heartbreak Hills loom everywhere – but there were few clues of flagging energy. Wispelwey appeared to relish every moment, and he carried the audience with him.
He began by emphasizing the bass contours of the Prelude and appeared to be studying the idiosyncratic resonances of the performance space even as he focused like a laser on every sound. As the movement proceeded, it became evident that he was actually using the auditorium as an extension of his instrument. (This gave new meaning to the chamber musician’s career accomplishment, playing Ozawa Hall.) A sustained high D, sounded without vibrato, cut through the space, before a set of exquisitely formed, rapid scales descended in a gentle sweeps to their roots on the contrapuntal bass line, C, B, A, and G. The high G reverse pedal point that followed turned the variation on its head, arpeggios and legato internal voices ringing a tribute to Bach’s compositional genius. All this on just one four-string instrument! The experience was comparable to our listening to one of Bach’s trio sonatas on the legendary 1745 organ in the Church of Saint-Séverin on the Left Bank of the Seine. This concert began with a sense of solemn occasion.
The audience sat totally still during the first Allemande, and each note, every embellishment, seemed to jump across and around the room in a miraculously conjured cascade of sound. In contrast to the Prelude, the mood was cooler, more rational, and more intensely focused. Wispelwey appeared to study every single note and phrase, turning his gaze side-to-side as complementary lines answered and elaborated one another.
The 3/4 Courante saw the unexpected advent of some unintended harmonics in the fast-tempo phrases where skittering high-notes flew around the downbeats. This imperfection provided a comforting sense that this sublimely twirling technical feat was being performed by a mere mortal. In the end, Wispelwey focused attention to the rhythmic syncopations that jazzed up the contrapuntal voices before they descended to that broadly bowed, confidently-asserted low G. The audience seemed to hold its collective breath, and the hall responded to the thrill of the performance with a fine and happy echo.
The first Sarabande of this evening featured romantic rubatos, dramatic dynamics, and strong, low double stops, played as tiny arpeggios. It closed with an affecting pianissimo. A stunning, accelerated 6/8 gigue gave a dramatic ending to the first Suite, provoking a burst of applause and shouts of delight from the crowd.
Tempo variations colored the second Suite in D minor, with a Prelude distinguished by a stately grandeur; a warmer and more sentimental Allemande; and a rollicking, rapid Courante marked by expansive phrases and cut with dramatic pauses. A deliciously contemplative Sarabande featured trills that emphasized the emotional pulls of the melodic anticipations and suspensions, giving a sympathetic, human quality to the strongly articulated counterpoint. It ended in a settling diminuendo of elegantly bowed octaves, from high to low D. After a pair of contrasting Minuets, one formal with a triumphal, stately ending, one starting with and sustained by a sprightly up-tempo, a stunningly rapid Gigue brought the Suite to dizzy, exciting close. To say the audience was pleased would be an equally dramatic understatement. People looked at one another with amazement, and the sober fellow following the score in a seat in front of your reviewer broke into a happy smile.
Harmonic variety propelled the Prelude of the Third Suite in C. A set of descending proclamations of the possibilities inherent in the C major scale were expressed with seriousness and clarity, and over a low G pedal point, the voices sketched out the progression G 7th, C, G 7th, G 9th. Bach is nothing if not courageous in allowing the lines to create surprising, if logical, dissonances. Spiccato bowing punched out the rhythmic foundation of the dancing Allemande that followed, with trills and turns that emphasized rather than detracted from the thrust of the melodic lines. Playful excursions back and forth from the relative minor harmony were expressed with lightly sustained low As before transforming back to a final cadence drew down to a diamond-clear C major 10th bowed arpeggio.
Wispelwey began the Gigue that followed with restraint, drawing attention to the unfolding rhythmic structure (6/8), and he eschewed technical display to the service of illuminating the brilliant bones of one of Bach’s most satisfying creations. Then, marvelously, he let it all hang out, with whirling, thrusting, intersecting lines, double-stopped grace-notes, and burly, deep, guttural rhythmic patterns that complemented billowing melodies in the upper register. The joyous dance cooled quickly from high heat to a fine, tempered, pianissimo conclusion.
Clearly, this was serious fun, and in the next section of the concert, beginning with Suite No. 4 in E-flat, Wispelwey seemed to be more at ease, his emerging sense of humor helped along by Mother Nature. During the Prelude after the intermission, Wispelwey offset succulent cantabiles with precisely chiseled devices. He was aided and delighted by the antics of a large moth that collided with his left hand and bounced to the podium, where he completed his dance with a few low jumps before falling exhausted to the floor. As if to mourn the exit of the little fellow, the exquisitely melodic Sarabande was uttered with just a touch of vibrato on the heads of some sustained notes and the tails of others. And then, during a bustling Bourée, Wispelwey bowed zippy strokes of five notes each with sizzling zest, lifting his legs and rocking subtly back and forth, all the while giving emphasis to the middle line of the counterpoint. He supported the 12/8 meter of the ensuing Gigue with a veritable dance with the cello, tapping his right foot in the joy of it all.
Wispelwey burned the final, sustained, low Eb with a brilliant trill that, the sober fellow in front graciously confirmed during the cheering that followed it, was definitely not in the manuscript. Nor, for that matter, are any of the embellishments, it should be noted. Bach left the details to the devils of inspiration, imagination, and impulse.
All were on vivid display in this concert, and yet a new interpretive opportunity presented itself in the Prelude of the Fifth Suite in C minor. A hungry, winged animal settled on the left temple of the cellist. Bow in hand, he swatted it with impressive accuracy. The beast fell to the podium. Wispelwey looked down seriously, found the creature, and held it up for examination by the cheering crowd. Not since the most recent Tanglewood appearance of the Toreador Escamillo, in Carmen, it may be averred, has a classical artist so impressed an audience with his carnivorous propensities. It was not for nothing that William Rawn, the architect, designed the barn door at the rear of the hall to stay open during concerts.
This suite’s Allemande was given in a sweet, light C minor, with only occasional vibrato. This was performed with special intensity on notes that held the greatest melodic and harmonic directionality. Similarly, in the Sarabande, serious, long notes underpinned the marvelous chromatic progression B-flat, B-natural, G, C, the elegance of the counterpoint suggesting a far-sighted harmonic vision. The ending, on an unadorned vibrato-less C, was no less inspired. And the Gigue, replete with appealing flourishes, concluded with a sweeping, one-handed, huge, open C, that brought the cellists in the audience, and no few others, to their feet.
Finally, in the third section of the concert, there were some problems. These appeared during the complex Prelude of the Sixth Suite, with its 3/8-6/8 sense of meter, lines emphasizing thirds and sixths that surveyed A Major to D to G minor to E minor to B minor to Bb to Eb in the space of what seemed like seconds, playful chromatic cadenzas, heaped one on the other, challenging any performer’s sense of time and harmonic location. It was here that the a few intonation lapses presented in the high register, a sure sign of incipient exhaustion.
But then, immediate recovery! An astounding arpeggiate cadenza began, with 6/8 pedal-point Bb repeats on the progression Eb, Eb, Ab, F, Bb, Eb. One held one’s breath again. Could Wispelwey sustain this? Here, he looked pained, concentrating hard on the very slow, singing line of the Allemande.
The treble meter of the Courante was offered light, dry, and ephemeral, giving way to one of the most moving events of the evening, a prayerful Sarabande, sans vibrato, that came across as a reverie on the lives of the great cellists. Casals, who brought us these masterpieces? Rostropovich, who dedicated weeks of effort to find the right church, with the right resonances, and hired the right engineers to record his own, reverential version of them? The Concertgebouw Orchestra players, who taught his teachers, deported to death camps during the Nazi occupation? Your reviewer took the unexpected opportunity to pose this question as Wispelwey crossed his path on the way to sign CD’s for his gathered fans. Taking the question seriously, he thought a moment and replied, yes, he had in mind the arc of life, but nothing more specific.
Performers with Wispelwey’s commitment, intelligence, and range of expressive abilities are members of a rare species indeed. Tanglewood was graced with the presence of a great master on this evening, and those who shared the privilege of being in the audience will not soon forget it.
Eli H. Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.