by Rachel Beaumont

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The urgent orator: Pieter Wispelwey Bach Suites at the Wigmore Hall

Bach Cello Suites nos. 1, 3 and 5
Pieter Wispelwey
Wigmore Hall
Stalls G5, £5 (under-35s)
6 October 2018
Wigmore page

How many ways are there to play the Bach cello suites? I think the number might essentially tend towards the infinite. Even controlling as many factors as possible – say, the same cello, a cellist who plays all the right notes, the same venue, the same weather, heck maybe the same cellist – I reckon you’ll have as many essentially different versions as you do renditions.

Pieter Wispelwey’s performance this afternoon of the odd suites was not entirely to my taste but as it was musically intelligent and flabbergastingly well played, rather than complain I can only marvel at the tending-towards-infinite richness of this music and the skill a performer must bring to it. Not always treasuring the melodic line, definitely not something anyone could ever think about dancing to, tending to hulk out the lower notes at the expense of the higher, Wispelwey’s interpretation nevertheless expressed a truth in the music that would not have spoken so strongly in a more formal rendition, and which had a feeling of absolute individuality, spontaneously felt.

The near-complete rhythmic freeness he allowed himself enabled him to scrunch together the most exotic weirdnesses of Bach’s harmonic forays, sometimes alienating them so far from the dance tempo that they sounded alien bizarreties paradoxically growing directly from the Baroque. In support of the scrunch Wispelwey played with a rasping hoarseness, brought about through speed and lightness of bow, often playing towards the tip and near the fingerboard. It becomes another singing voice of the instrument, not the honeyed crooner but an aged orator, speaking painfully but with all his former intensity, even magnified by closeness to the end of life.

And of course all the notes were in tune (well, very nearly all), the dynamic range was wide and quicksilver and never distorted that rasp, and in all ways Wispelwey radiated the integrity of musicianship that comes from a lifetime dedicated. I criticized, but could mainly but wonder.

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