by Tim Janof

Pieter Wispelwey is one of the first of a generation of performers equally adept on either the 'authentic' or modern cello. His expert stylistic knowledge, augmented by a phenomenal technique enable him to render individual, yet remarkable interpretations of the cello repertoire from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter. For years now, he has won the hearts of critics and public alike with his unique performances of the Bach and Britten unaccompanied cello suites, and with his recitals of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas either on baroque or modern instruments.

Born in Haarlem, Netherlands, Wispelwey's diverse musical personality is rooted in the training he received -- from early years with Dicky Boeke and Anner Bylsma in Amsterdam to studies with Paul Katz in the USA and William Pleeth in Great Britain. In 1992 he was the first cellist ever to receive the Netherlands Music Prize, which is endowed upon the most promising young musician in the Netherlands.

Wispelwey is in keen demand as a soloist. A typical review in Melbourne's "The Age" reported: "To say Pieter Wispelwey's music-making is ravishing is to utter an understatement of huge proportions. Monday's concert did everything to confirm him as one of the world's great cellists." His career spans five continents with recital appearances in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London (Wigmore Hall), Paris (Châtelet), Buenos Aires (Teatro Colon) and Boston. He has appeared as soloist with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Camerata Academica Salzburg and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and has recorded with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

Future highlights include concertos with the the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Japan Philharmonic, and a tour of the Far East and Australia with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester under Herbert Blomstedt, as well as recitals in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Lisbon. Further engagements include return visits to the Edinburgh Festival and the Great Performers Series at the Lincoln Center, New York, following his successful debut at their Mostly Mozart Festival.

Pieter Wispelwey has made numerous recordings for the Channel Classics label, of which no less than six have won international awards. These include the Bach and Britten cello suites, the Dvorak and Elgar concertos, and much of the sonata repertoire. Of his disc of Shostakovich and Kodaly (with the Australian Chamber Orchestra), Gramophone Magazine wrote that Wispelwey is "a musician through and through, someone you can always trust to get the message right." His most recent releases include a CD with transcriptions of Chopin's Waltzes (together with pianist Dejan Lazic) and a recording of romantic cello repertoire with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie.

TJ: Dicky Boeke was your first major teacher.

PW: Now 79 years old, she has greatly influenced my outlook on music, and life, really. She took me on as her cello student when I was 8 years old. A few years later, she also gave me piano lessons. I had been self-taught on the piano since I was 4 years old, and she thought that some structure would help. I studied both instruments with her for several years until I ultimately decided to concentrate on the cello.

In addition to solidifying my cello technique, I have her to thank for my obsession with gut strings. Even as a child I used them -- pure gut A and D -- and I continued to use them throughout my conservatory years and during the first few years of my professional career. This became problematic when I began performing pieces like the Britten Suites and the Dutilleux and Shostakovich concerti, so I eventually switched to steel strings, which ironically, in the case of the pieces I just mentioned, was a sort of "period-string" authenticity, since they were all written for Rostropovich, who of course plays on steel.

Only two weeks ago, I tried an aluminum-on-gut A string and it was a revelation: so radiant, so many overtones, so different from the "canned," even sterile and in a way artificial sound of a steel A. The other steel strings sounded different too, as if all strings were gut, but with a little more power.

TJ: You were using gut strings early on. Were you experimenting with baroque music and baroque performance practice before you studied with Anner Bylsma?

PW: No, I just played the standard repertoire on gut strings. By the way, I didn't study the Baroque repertoire with Bylsma.

TJ: Why not?

PW: My goal wasn't, and never has been, to become a Baroque cellist, and I don't consider myself to be one now. My goal was to become a cello soloist, so I spent years wading through the concerto repertoire and the Popper, Grützmacher, and Bazelaire etudes just like everybody else. Though I seem to have built a reputation for my playing of the Bach Suites, I have been very busy performing repertoire ranging from baroque to contemporary works for the last 15 years.

Anner Bylsma was my Modern teacher, which may seem odd now, given that he is now known for his baroque playing. People forget that he won the Casals competition in the late 1950's. He then joined the Concertgebouw Orchestra as their solo cellist. Six years later, he began specializing in Baroque music.

TJ: What technical principles did he emphasize with you?

PW: Having studied with André Navarra, Bylsma was deeply influenced by the French principles of bow technique. Every string player would claim this, but the French tradition somehow requires lots of sophistication, a special weight distribution, particular notions on how to hold the wrist, subtle use of the fingers, lots of concentration on how to start a staccato note, and so on, all accomplished with elegance.

TJ: You said in a past interview that Bylsma's playing is much less emotional than the playing of someone like British cellist Colin Carr. Do you consider Anner Bylsma's playing to be unemotional?

PW: The strength of Bylsma's playing is its lyricism. All string players strive to sing on their instruments, but he's particularly good at it. He's probably more of a Lied singer than an opera singer, so his playing is more subtle, and has more inflexion and words. Lyricism also contains an element of irony, however, which means that emotions are kept from becoming heavy-handed, and that's great ... sometimes.

TJ: Did you find him to be a fairly non-dogmatic teacher?

PW: Definitely, yes.

TJ: And yet you've said that you didn't work on the Bach Suites with him because you worried that he might influence you too much.

PW: He definitely had (and has) his own ideas on how pieces should be played, but he was not one to force his ideas on others, even though he made it clear what he thought. One couldn't help but be influenced at times, not that this is necessarily such a terrible thing. I just wanted to save the Bach Suites for myself.

TJ: You also studied with Paul Katz, former cellist of the Cleveland Quartet, at the Eastman School for two semesters.

PW: That was a great year for me because there were few distractions in Rochester, so I had lots of time to practice. He talked a lot about the angle of approach of the fingers in the left hand, wanting them to be sloped backwards, instead of perpendicular to the fingerboard. He also emphasized the need to keep the joints curved and to remain flexible and supple. I didn't fully appreciate what he was telling me at the time, but his ideas ended up being very helpful as I thought about them later.

TJ: How long did you study with William Pleeth?

PW: I attended a two-week master class course with him during the time I was studying with Anner Bylsma.

TJ: You once referred to him as a "Shakespearean cellist who is both theatrical and intelligent."

PW: He was like an actor playing a powerful Shakespearean character. When he discussed music he could display a raw, sensual, burning passion, but he always he did so through his incredible mastery and control of the English language. He believed that music has a larger message that we must unearth and convey with every fiber of our being. It's little wonder that he and Jacqueline du Pré were a perfect match.

TJ: How did you learn about baroque string techniques?

PW: There are no strict methods on how to play in a baroque style, so we all have to teach ourselves by experimenting with the instruments. Instruments are not all the same, so one's technique varies from instrument to instrument. But certain things become very clear, like the fact that intense vibratos, pressing deeply into the strings, and certain attacks are not feasible on baroque instruments.

I had been performing the Bach Suites on a modern cello for many years, but I always had the feeling that it would be more interesting and inspiring to play them on a Baroque cello, which turned out to be true. I still feel that the Bach Suites are much more satisfying on a Baroque cello.

TJ: I do love the velvety ring of a Baroque cello.

PW: Yes, but there are incredible cellos with steel strings that also sound very velvety, rich, and noble. The problem with steel is that it can be too clean. I don't mean to say that Bach should sound messy, but there should be a raw center to the sound that one only hears in Baroque instruments, which makes the velvety sound seem even more touching.

Baroque instruments allow for endless possibilities of attacks and articulations. With steel strings, there are fewer possibilities. Either the string speaks or it doesn't. With a Baroque cello, there is an entire spectrum of sounds and timbres available.

TJ: In your master class you mentioned that spiccato is not considered a Baroque technique. Did Baroque string players play more on the string?

PW: As far as we know that's correct, though the bowing technique of the Italian Baroque masters must have been very sophisticated in order to play all those concerti.

I must caution that terms like "spiccato" weren't used in the Baroque era because technique hadn't been systematized yet. Most of the terms that we are familiar with today were developed when the first schools were established in the 19th Century, such as Mendelssohn's Conservatory of Music in Leipzig. Just because certain techniques weren't named doesn't mean that they didn't exist. For example, the term "sonata allegro form" was introduced almost half a century after composers were actually using it.

Once there were schools, masters became professors and felt obliged to come up with semi-scientific methods. They categorized the different bow strokes, for example, gave them names, and created etudes that develop them. The result of all this systematization it that musicians today say to themselves when playing a work, "This section is spiccato, and this section is martelé," and so on, which is far removed from the composers' original artistic conception. A composer doesn't say to himself, "I'd like to express myself with spiccato."

TJ: Let's talk about the Bach Cello Suites. Anner Bylsma wrote a book, Bach, The Fencing Master, in which he assumes that the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript is the most credible source for articulations. Do you agree?

PW: For the most part, yes, though I use the other manuscripts too, like the Kellner. The fundamental problem with Bylsma's book is that he bases his ideas solely on a source that is a copy of a copy of a copy, which has some unfortunate consequences. It's a pity to ignore the other sources.

If you put the Anna Magdalena manuscript under a microscope and look at the beginning of the first prelude, there seem to be different bowings for each bar. The problem with this approach is that one's attention is drawn too much to the details, making them seem much more profound and meaningful than they probably were ever meant to be.

I once played the G Major Prelude for harpsichordist Gustav Leonardt, expecting to get a lecture on the rules of baroque playing and all sorts of other dogmas, but the opposite happened. Instead, he said something like, "It should be played much more simply. Have you been listening to Casals or something? Why does this music have to be so serious? This is just light music, isn't it? Just entertainment, Unterhaltungsmusik?" He then played it on the harpsichord as if he were turning a music box, saying, "Is it really much more than this?" I still agree with Leonardt that there isn't an endless profundity in every detail in the Bach Suites.

TJ: Are you trying to take the Suites more at face value?

PW: I don't know that I would go quite that far. Of course, there is much to be found within the Suites. There simply has to be a sense of balance between one's focus on the details and the bigger picture -- a sense of perspective. There also has to be a balance between the erudite and the sensual, between the physical and the emotional. Playing music is not only about making the mind dance, it's, perhaps more importantly, about making the body dance. I enjoy talking "intellectually" about musicological issues as much as anybody else, but what ultimately matters the most is whether the music pleases the ear, and then whether it makes sense to the brain. If the ear is not intrigued or doesn't hear the life and sensuality of the music, it loses interest.

TJ: You have two recordings of the Bach Suites, the first recorded in 1989/1990 and the second in 1998. The first, done when you were 26 years old, seems more musically exaggerated than the second one. Would you agree?

PW: I've never felt that my first recording was musically exaggerated, but I'm probably not the best judge. I would say that I had strong convictions about how the Bach Suites should be played and I made no compromises in my approach.

TJ: One moment that comes to mind in your first recording is after the fermata, midway through the G Major Prelude (see Example 1). You start the Prelude at around 69 beats per minute. After the fermata you are suddenly at over 100 beats per minute and you remain at this higher tempo for the remainder of the movement. In other words, you play the first half of the movement at one tempo and the second half at a completely different tempo.

Example 1 - Bach G Major Prelude -- Measure 22

PW: I do that in both recordings, actually.

TJ: Yes, but the tempo change is much less extreme in your second recording.

PW: I consider the second half to be more like a cadenza, a flourish, so I allow myself more freedom and I strive for more of an improvisational character. Moving along in the many sequences after the fermata feels right to me. But you're probably right that an almost doubling of the tempo is a bit much.

TJ: In the E-flat Sarabande, you don't tie the third beat of the first measure into the first beat of the second measure, a musical idea you carry throughout the movement. Instead you play only the two lower notes of the chord on the first beat of the second measure (see Example 2). Why?

Example 2 - Bach E-flat Sarabande -- Measure 1 and 2 (Anna Magdalena manuscript)

PW: That was inspired by the fact that there are some ties that are physically impossible to execute. Therefore, I feel a certain freedom to not hold the note across the beat even when it is possible. Regardless, the note is in the ear of the listener, even if I don't play its full length, so treating it as an "implied" note works well.

TJ: In the c minor Prelude, you play the groups of three sixteenth notes more like three 32nd notes (see Example 3). Why?

Example 3 - Bach c minor Prelude -- Measure 3

PW: This Prelude is clearly based on the French Overture. It was the practice of the time to play the sixteenths in this manner, to over-punctuate them.

TJ: In the D Major Allemande, I noticed that you keep the quarter-note beats in strict time, but you play with a lot of freedom in between the beats. (See Example 4)

Example 4 - Bach c minor Prelude -- Measure 3

PW: Yes, I use old-fashioned rubato, giving and taking, stealing and returning. It's important to maintain the overall pulse so that the logic of the various voices is maintained.

TJ: It sounds as if you are trying to keep the longer phrase in mind.

PW: Absolutely. If you don't, you'll get lost in the short notes, which will become far too heavy and lose their meaning or, worse, get the wrong meaning. The slur over six or eight 32nd notes implies that they should be thrown off, as if they are more ornamental. The hurried manner in which they were written in the manuscript suggests this too, looking as if Jackson Pollack had flung the notes on the page. The 32nd notes aren't individually important, so there's no need to play each one with "meaning."

TJ: You've described your second Bach Suite recording as being much "freer and much more expressive" and that you're "more in control of the details." What does this mean?

PW: I think I'm more aware of timing, which allows room for more dance gestures around the pulse. I also pay more attention to simple structures, like whether I'm playing a two, three, or four-bar structure or sequence. As a result, I'd say I play with more attention and affection for the music.

TJ: You mentioned in your master class that the music of Bach speaks. Do you consider Baroque music to be primarily spoken, or does it sing too?

PW: It sings, but in a different way. The Cello Suites are definitely not primarily melodic music, their style is rhetorical, speaking rather than singing. Of course, there are incredible arias in the Bach Passions and Cantatas and the Handel operas, but composers clearly wrote differently for the cello than for the voice. They composed different music for the violin too, which can be readily observed in the slow movements of the Vivaldi concerti; the cello concerti don't have long singing lines, whereas the violin concerti have ethereal, everlasting, almost timeless melodies. There's no aria-like singing in the Bach Cello Suites, but there can be a wonderful lyricism within certain notes, slurs, or motives.

TJ: Do you think of the Bach Suites as stepping along from moment to moment beauties?

PW: I'd say I think of characters, situations, moods, posing, scents, scenes, clothes, bodies, gestures, and so on, and all of that framed within a dance meter, which I suppose means that there is a stepping along.

TJ: You mentioned the word "meaning" often in your master class. Do you think of the Bach Suites as having meaning, or are they just supremely well-crafted strings of notes?

PW: Since he wrote so much music, which means that he must have spent tens of thousands of hours writing all those notes, he must have had millions of second thoughts, and seen millions of double meanings and symbols, recognizing links to pieces he'd written before. His musical creativity was endless, so why would his associative creativity have been limited? I mean, isn't musicality in the end the hearing of emotion and meaning in sound? Feeling power but also the symbolism? Death in the drop of an interval?

Life itself is perhaps profound and his music encompasses everything you can think about life, which includes death, cruelty, love, affection, eroticism everything. It was natural for him, so I even hate to use the word "profound." I'd rather say his music is very human.

TJ: Let's switch to the Schumann Cello Concerto. You've said that you believe the concerto is generally played too slowly, and that there are clues in the score that suggest that it should be faster. What clues are you referring to?

PW: Schumann's own metronome marking is a good clue: 130 beats per minute. I've heard it played as slowly as 88 beats per minute, which makes quite a difference. I'm certainly not the first to feel this way. I believe there is a new Bärenreiter edition that quotes Clara Schumann as describing the piece as "radiant and outgoing," which isn't exactly what cellists are being taught generally. The Schumann is still often played with Pablo Casals' brand of yawning profundity.

TJ: You tend to use less vibrato when playing the Schumann Concerto. Is this because you are trying to stay within the performance practice of his time?

PW: I suppose so, but also because I think it sounds better. The score doesn't explicitly say to not use vibrato, but it doesn't say to use it either. Twenty years before Schumann, a composer like Romberg would indicate where he wanted vibrato, which occurred in only a few places throughout a given piece. The careful and spare use of vibrato was the practice up through the end of the 19th Century.

TJ: In your Schumann recording, you seem to blend with the orchestra. Did this occur because you were treating the concerto as if it were chamber music?

PW: The first movement starts as a melody with simple accompaniment. But the melody starts piano, which gives it a more mysterious, flowing, and lyrical character, so the opening tends to blend. The piano marking makes it more tempting, by the way, to play the movement at a slower tempo, a temptation that I think we should resist.

TJ: Do you use more vibrato in late 19th Century and 20th Century music?

PW: Sure, my God, there's nothing wrong with vibrato!

TJ: You've said that "contemporary music expresses itself more through gestures, it's not about melodic or harmonic structure." What is a "gesture"?

PW: Many see similarities between baroque and contemporary music, which both contrast with music of the Romantic era in that there is an element of gesture. Gesture has to do with the development of tonal (baroque) or atonal (contemporary) short motives, three or four notes at most, with limited regard for any harmonic structure. In baroque music, these short motives are associated with a dance meter, while in contemporary music, they are often more free form and arhythmic. Of course, not all baroque or contemporary music adheres to these generalizations.

TJ: You once said that a musician must be more like a chameleon. How so?

PW: You have to force yourself to be in a certain mood when you start a piece, or at least you have to express a certain mood or create a certain atmosphere. Good musicians seem to be able to take on the emotion of the music, which means that they have to be versatile and flexible, emotionally speaking. After all, the goal of all our efforts should be to convey the vision of the composer as best as we can.


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