Pieter Wispelwey

Bach: 6 Suites for Cello Solo [2012 Recording]

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OK, are you ready for something completely different? From someone who has already recorded two complete sets of Bach's six suites for solo cello, BWV 1007-1012, no less? Where to begin? Dutch historical-performance specialist Pieter Wispelwey disregards the long performance tradition associated with these six suites, which seem like cousins to Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin but are actually quite different in character (there are no sonatas, for one thing). Even players of the Baroque cello sometimes seem to have Pablo Casals' magisterial recordings in their heads, but Casals is not in the building at all for these readings. They seem to rest on three principles. First and foremost, Wispelwey has drawn on Baroque theories of rhetoric in constructing his interpretation. These were certainly in the air when Bach composed these works, although why they should apply specifically to the cello suites is less clear. Each phrase in Wispelwey's reading is like a spoken utterance. Notes are cleanly cut off, with very little legato, and the tempo is freely varied as speech might be. Second, Wispelwey's tempi are unorthodox in the extreme, tending mostly toward the fast side. Plunge in and sample the opening movement of the Suite for solo cello in G major, BWV 1007, for an idea of what you're getting into here. Third, although Wispelwey is not the first performer to de-emphasize the dance rhythms in these suites, he diverges from them to an unusual degree. Each of the dance movements is almost a character piece in the vein of Couperin, but with an entirely different set of instrumental textures. Throw in growling cello textures due to A=392 tuning, said to be authentic to the city of Köthen where the suites were written, and you get extremely un-song-like utterances throughout. It may all seem to add up to something with only a passing resemblance to what Bach wrote, but Wispelwey has the chops to pull this off, and there's an appealing sense of drilling deep into the music here. The sound from the ominously named Evil Penguin label, way too close up, is a disincentive even so, and this is probably not a good choice for those new to the music. Listeners will ultimately have to make up their own minds about this experiment, but it commands attention.

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