Johann Sebastian BACH
The Cello Suites
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [17:02]
No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [19:36]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [20:41]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [23:25]
No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [22:31]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [30:26]
Pieter Wispelwey
DVD documentary, “392, Pieter Wispelwey and the Bach Cello Suites” [52:00]
rec. June 2012, Serendipitous Studio, Mechelen, Belgium
EVIL PENGUIN RECORDS EPRC012 [57:19 + 76:22]
Made at the age of 50, this is Pieter Wispelwey’s third recording of the Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, and in very many ways his most impressive. Both of his earlier versions can be found on the Channel Classics label, and very good they are too. His second recording already approached a closeness to authenticity with its use of a Barak Norman baroque cello from 1710, and for this new version he uses a Peter Rombouts instrument, also from 1710. The big difference in this case is that the cello is equipped with gut strings and tuned to 392 Hz. This results in tuning roughly a half-tone lower than usual, and with lower tension in the strings this has a greater effect that you might imagine.
The key to this set is the DVD which is included, “392, Pieter Wispelwey and the Bach Cello Suites”. The ‘392’ refers of course to the pitch at which his instrument is tuned, and this is a central aspect of how this performance is seen by Wispelwey, and he demonstrates the clear differences between instruments. The low tension in the strings makes the way the music ‘speaks’ very different, and this is articulated in performances which have a strong narrative feel and less emphasis on the lyrical side of the music. The DVD is worth the asking price for this set on its own, with plenty of fascinating insights based on close research in and around Bach’s life, as well as clips of live performances given in Oxford - a marathon concert of all six suites in one concert. The sections of this we are given only make me wish we were given the entire concert on CD as well, but you can’t have everything.
Compared to the relatively restrained poetry of Steven Isserlis on the Hyperion label (see review), Wispelwey extends shapes, plays with pauses and silence, and explores the resonance of the instrument to the full. The Allemande of the Suite No. 1 is an example of this shaping of space, taking time between phrases while allowing the strings to thrum, something which happens a good deal less on a modern instrument with wound metal strings. There is a nicely natural feel to this kind of playing, and a grounding of long experience which demonstrates a keen knowledge of what works and an avoidance of what doesn’t. The low tuning results in a gruffer tone to the usually mild and lyrical Sarabande of this suite, Wispelwey sticking to the harmony notes a little longer, allowing their tonality to speak, where too short a resonance sounds as if it wouldn’t ‘work’. This can have a more extreme effect further on, and listening blind to something like the Sarabande of the Suite No. 3 you might be forgiven for thinking it was an expertly played double bass rather than a cello.
These differences are fascinating, but throw up questions as well as new perspectives on familiar works. While there is superb playing throughout this set, you might find it hard to get used to the darker colours and ‘otherness’ of expression coming from these performances. Wispelwey discusses the Prelude of the Suite No. 4, concluding that the baroque cello suits a much lighter touch, imitating fingers on the strings of a lute rather than the pedals of an organ. This results in something far less linear than what we are usually served up; played slower as well as in a more separated way, the notes gain an extra identity as well as establishing new relationships. I for one relish the drama implied in the Prelude of the Suite No. 5, but following the logical flow of the music in such a movement can be a challenge, and these recordings may not be the ideal place to start a journey of discovery into J.S. Bach’s cello suites, though the ‘challenge’ is something which is in the very essence of these works, both for performer and listener. The downward re-tuning of the upper string in this fifth suite creates ‘graveyard’ associations, and darkness abounds as in few other performances I could name. The contrast of relief in the light and joy in the Suite No. 6, played on a piccolo cello with an added upper E string is palpable.
What also raises this release above the average in these works is the excellent recording quality, which makes even the Isserlis recording seem a bit dull and distant. Detailed and close, you are embraced by warm, wooden sonorities, and can easily lose yourself in the music. Fingers tapping on the fingerboard and a certain amount of breathing are the side-effects of such an up-front and personal position, but the benefits far outweigh any blemishes, if such they are. Other perceived blemishes may be those of intonation, but if you bear in mind that flats and sharps can have different effects on a string instrument, and in vocal and other kinds of music for that matter, then the shifts in expectation and experience of certain notes becomes more of a phenomenon of nature rather than any failure in technique. These are intervallic relationships which have a life far more free and animated than those fixed into the scales of a piano.
So yes, even if you know and love one or more complete recording of J.S Bach’s Suites for cello solo, then you owe it to yourself to acquire a copy of this release. The DVD deconstructs and analyses in a very approachable way, and even if you think you know plenty about these works this shows there is always more to discover. If ever there was a recording which takes us behind the notes of these pieces and adds to our understanding of their qualities then this is the one. That these are deeply satisfying performances and a marvellous recording seems an almost incidental bonus.  

Dominy Clements 
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