Recorded June 2012 at Serendipitous Studio, Mechelen, Belgium
CD No: EVIL PENGUIN RECORDS CLASSIC EPRC 0012 (2 CDs & 1 DVD) Duration: 2 hours 14 minutes (CDs) 52 minutes (DVD) Reviewed: December 2012
Bach Cello Suites – Pieter Wispelwey [Evil Penguin Records Classic]
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
This is the third time that Pieter Wispelwey has recorded the six Cello Suites of J. S. Bach – and if the accompanying documentary is anything to go by, he intends to do so another three times at least. If that reflects his love for the music, it also shows the versatility of Bach's writing, the possibilities it offers and the ironic advantage of having little guidance from the composer to aid performance.
Wispelwey here takes a step back to look at the suites afresh. “Adventure and Provocation” is his theme, the title of an engaging and passionate booklet note confirming what the music means to him, and indeed most cellists. He also explains his decision to opt for an older instrument and a far lower pitch of 392Hz, which gives the name to the 50-minute film. The cello, a Pieter Rombouts instrument dating from 1710, has a wonderfully sonorous sound in its lower register, and a consistently penetrating tone, which proves effective with little to no vibrato.
The documentary is a good place to start before experiencing the Dutch cellist's latest interpretations. There are snippets of him performing in the Holywell Music Room (Oxford), interspersed with informative debate from Laurence Dreyfus and John Butt, two highly respected Bach scholars, on issues of performance. Solutions are offered but never imposed, remembering the freedom the music offers. There are some persuasive thoughts, however.
“There's no way that you cannot make yourself into a conduit for this music and assume a kind of personality speaking through [it]”, says Wispelwey. Taking this statement at face value, there are many aspects to his character, some of which are contrary to expectation. The Suite in E flat, so often treated as a grand opus with a touch of humour in its dance movements, gains a much darker outlook. The ‘Prelude’ is meditative rather than celebratory, and the pair of ‘Bourrées’ that scamper around the cello’s lower strings trip lightly but still have a weight on their mind. Wispelwey opts for a more detached approach in the phrasing here. If anything the ‘Allemande’ has more humour, with an exaggerated swing to the rhythm, while the swaying measures of the ‘Gigue’ are born of Wispelwey’s love of the music. In the Sixth Suite there is plenty of time for contemplation, particularly in this 'Allemande', in which Wispelwey’s sensitive vibrato blurs the barlines. In this work he opts for an 18th-century five-string violoncello piccolo by an unknown maker. This is very individual and beautiful playing, and is countered by a vivacious 'Courante' that further shows Wispelwey’s wit. In the 'Prelude' the melodic lines are not as propulsive as in many other interpretations, again leaving time for reflection, yet surefooted.
In the rare instances where Wispelwey chooses to use vibrato, the notes take on a greater expressive importance. This is a significant issue in the ‘Preludes’ especially, which take on a solemnity and expressivity not often heard. The Fifth Suite is darkest of all, and it is here where the drop in pitch is most noticeable. The ‘Sarabande’ is indeed the “graveyard” that Wispelwey describes, stark and frozen in time. The equivalent movement from the Third Suite, often treated as celebratory, is unexpectedly transformed from a grand utterance into a fragile one. Wispelwey’s virtuosity is beyond question, and there are some truly thrilling moments – a rush of notes in the 'Allemande', for instance. The recording too is natural, the cello caught with a touch of reverb.
One problem, however, is that Wispelwey does not always observe the repeats in the dances prior to the final ‘Gigue’ – or he observes the first repeat but not the second, or he observes them all, which causes problems of imbalance between movements and diminishing some of them. Also his speeds can be a too fast, resulting in choppy phrasing. At no point, however, would one say Wispelwey’s approach is ‘wrong’, and he does find ways of looking at this music afresh, helped not just by the low pitch but also by his acute musical imagination.
Notwithstanding some reservations, this is a highly emotive and rewarding issue. That Wispelwey is still finding so much to say about Bach’s music speaks volumes for it, and the addition of the documentary makes this a rather special presentation. It is Pieter Wispelwey’s 50th-birthday present to himself – and how nice that we can share it.