Music / The Best of 2010

Elephants Begone! – Bach’s Cello Suites Deconstructed and Reconstructed – Pieter Wispelwey at Tanglewood

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Pieter Wispelwey, The Bach Cello Suites. Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood. Thursday, July 22, 8pm.

I was of divided mind.

Pieter Wispelwey
Cellist, Pieter Wispelwey

From the familiar opening measures of Bach’s great set of cello suites, any resemblance to performances I had previously heard (or could imagine from the score), any accordance with Baroque performance practice I had studied, and any sense of veneration to “The Bach Suite As Such” had been thoroughly dashed. I listened with jaw-dropping surprise at Wispelwey’s granular, hyper-rhetorical phrasing – now playful, now expressionistic, now rapturous, now diffident, always light-on-the-bow – and felt completely alienated by a radical departure from a performance tradition I had loved. Where were Janos Starker’s muscles? Where was the grunting and spiritually ennobling midwifery of Pablo Casals whose hulking, devotional approach attested to the phenomenon, as G. M. Hopkins said,  “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”?

The broad musical line and the Baroque practice of keeping phrases in tow by judicious application of affekt seemed, in Mr. Wispelwey’s hands, a fragmented mastication and ultimately at the service of an arbitrary series of emotional states. It’s an approach more in line with recitative and soliloquy – and hence, theater – than the stylized abstraction of eighteenth-century dance. Nor was Wispelwey merely adhering to early music theory that stresses application of “Baroque rhetoric,” for again, even with two parallel four-note phrases, Mr. Wispelwey could yield to a heterogeneity that was startling and, at face value, un-Baroque.

So, where was my second mind?

By the end of the evening, I was convinced that I had heard one of truly great interpretations possible of these cello works, pieces that, historically, have been pejoratively termed “elephantine” by some music critics. Listening to Mr. Wispelwey’s Bach, one’s expectation of the putative performance is now permanently changed.

The Cello Suites (S.1007-1012) have always engendered passionate opinions and odd contention. In the context of the solo Violin Partitas and the eighteen major keyboard suites, these six works for cello seem to be formally less adventurous or innovative. In a widely publicized 2008 news story, an Australian musicologist, Martin Jarvis, came to the conclusion that the author was not Johann Sebastian but his beloved wife (and copyist) Anna Magdalena. Jarvis uses a form of circular reasoning that typifies most denialist and conspiratorialist “theories”: in his case, the Suites are already assumed not to be by Bach since the music is clearly inferior (or so Jarvis contends) to his other works. Thus, let’s find out who really did write them – in this case, Bach’s wife (after all, she must be a suitably inferior candidate). While Mr. Jarvis’s theory has been dismissed by most, he furthered the notion that these truly great works are somehow less imbued with genius and “normal” style.  On the other hand, mathematician Harlan Brothers sees a profound occurrence of a mathematical fractal pattern known as the “Cantor Set” in the first Bourée of the Suite No. 3. While one can easily deny such a formalism as intentional (although fractals do appear in nature, seemingly by “intelligent design”), such observations add to the works’ mystery and extra-musical lore. Simple or complex, typically Bachian or not, the music is uniquely eloquent, spellbinding, and expressively encyclopedic as an utterance designed for a single melodic instrument.

The public’s adulation of these works, though, has never been anything short of reverential. Ever since Pablo Casals’s landmark recordings of 1936-39, which were heralded as “rediscoveries” of these works, the Casals approach has created the dark Klangwelt that, for many of us, became definitive: a decidedly heavy-handed romantic approach seemed to be the natural way to unveil the essence of the work. In his later performances, one felt the weight of each note, the physicality of his bowing, and the epic struggle of Man vs. Cello. The sound of a hefty instrument, with a low tessitura, contending with demandingly fleet passages and delicately shaped dance themes has allowed us to accept laboriousness as part and parcel of the work. Thus, given such expectations, detractors have not spared deprecatory comments, sometimes facetiously made, of, say, Elephants struggling to pirouette in a gavotte. However, it has been clear from subsequent interpretations that the Casals approach, however emblazoned in our minds, is largely responsible for the “tonnage” associated with these pieces. And so, over the years, major cellists, while still digging their bows in and occasionally creating growling and eruptive triple stops, have gradually stressed lighter bowing and more Baroque-minded articulation. Today, besides the modern cello recordings of Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma, Anner Bylsma has made the case for a lighter, more agile interpretation using a Baroque cello (and bow) tuned to probable period pitch. It is from Bylsma’s revisionist Klangwelt that Mr. Wispelwey arrives, but armed with a modern instrument, a new vision, and a preternatural technique.

Pieter Wispelwey wasted little time in weaning us off our tradition-based expectations. The first three suites (S.1007-1009) in G Major, D Minor, and C Major, respectively, were all performed in his most pointillist and discontinuous approach, stripping away most of what performance tradition has had to say. After intermission, the interpretation of the last three suites (S.1010-1012 in E-flat Major, G Minor, and D Major) seemed to be a conscious attempt to mediate his rhetorically prismatic approach. His ultra light bowing, playing “on top of the strings,” frequently with staccato or spiccato bowings, gave the music an aerated quality. His tone, regardless of how light his bow, was always assured. Also, a sense of irony and humor marked much of the concert’s first half. Oddly, the sarabandes, which usually call for freely discursive phrasing, were played far more “straight” than the surrounding movements. The familiar first G Major Prélude, with its assuring figurations, was episodic with unexpected breaks and caesuras. The D Minor Prélude seemed to cry for Ritalin, and the Allemande seemed flaccid. But, nothing heard was boring; indeed, Wispelwey’s sense of color and dynamics was imaginatively applied throughout. Vibrato was applied with the utmost discretion. His double stops were amazing: starkly and agogically held forth, fingered without any vibrato, they were perfectly intoned and invoked sudden “inscapes” of a medieval world’s hurdy-gurdy. Blisteringly fast passages with short staccato bowings were remarkably precise and musical, again, without the hint of any fuzzy intonation. By the time the Suite No. 3 in C Major was played, I was won over by his eloquence and technical panache. The C Major Prélude sounded perfect with its contrasting use of tessitura; the Allemande was elegant and beautiful; the Courante was dazzling; and, the final Gigue seemed perfect.

With our palates cleansed, the second half seemed as if Mr. Wispelwey’s style was as old and familiar as that of Casals. In the E-flat Major, the Prélude offered the most convincing demonstration of the evening, in contrasting metrically regular figuration with free, improvisatory passages. The familiar Bourée pair seemed to evoke Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (why not? given Mr. Wispelwey’s postmodern approach). The Gigue ended with a comical, impudent trill. Mr. Wispelwey used a scordatura tuning for the cello’s A string for the Suite No. 5 in C Minor: I could not perceive the difference had he used the regular tuning. The French-style Prélude and Allemande were both suffused with appropriate pomp; the Courante, more conventionally performed, was noble in its bearing; and, the soulful Sarabande was breathtaking, and totally committed.  Gone were the ghosts of Casals, Starker, Fournier, et al. The extraordinary Suite No. 6 in D Major, played with a five-string cello, was as lyrical as it was whimsical, as profound as it was delicate.

It takes courage to fly in the face of venerated tradition, and Mr. Wispelwey certainly demonstrated this. His technical grasp of the instrument, its colors, and the wizardry of his bowing made his argument hard to resist. The full house at Ozawa felt so as well, giving him a standing ovation.

For an encore, the G-Major Prélude was repeated. Like Bach returning to the Aria that engendered thirty Goldberg variations, one felt closure to the past two hours of innovation, yet one heard this simple encore as with new ears. The two Préludes seemed entirely different to me – undoubtedly a measure of my own transformation as a listener.

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