Pieter Wispelwey: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms

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Published: 26th August, 2017

Last week Melbournians were treated to a one-man cello festival of sorts, as over three consecutive nights Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey guided nearly 3000 souls through the cello recital output of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Memorable both for the sheer largesse of the idea let alone the task itself, it might prove hard to name another living artist able to sustain a crowd with such imagination, passion and stamina. On two of these evenings he was supported by well-known pianist and collaborator Caroline Almonte whose beautiful tone and calm presence became a bedrock to which Wispelwey’s energy could anchor. The Melbourne Recital Centre was on the money too with bold programming, and a sense as the evenings progressed that the hall itself was in on the fun.

Beethoven’s five Sonatas for pianoforte and violoncello ( not Cello Sonatas as labelled in the program) are bold forays into a cusp-of-the-nineteenth-century newish artform, with the cello emergent from a continuo role. The pairing of the F major and G minor Sonatas presented Wispelwey as chief protagonist, and a provocative one at that. With larger than life physical gestures Wispelwey delivered the rhetorical style for which he is known. Think master orator even more than master musician. Entertaining and theatrical, Wispelwey never slid into egotistical navel-gazing. His playing in the 5th Sonata in D major Op.102 No.2 was raw and unabashed as if stating, “Here I am. Here He is.” A remarkable moment for this listener came in the shift of a single B to a B sharp, a moment suspended and ripe with hope.

Mention must be made of the inclusion of the three sets of Variations. As if the Sonatas weren’t enough in one marathon, Wispelwey and Almonte exploited the quick-witted characters in these underperformed works that take their themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute and Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. Notable was Wispelwey’s sparing choice of vibrato, an affect especially powerful in the E flat Variations, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”.

As to the presentation of the six Bach Suites in one sitting, Wispelwey is an old hand. Performed in numerical order, this allowed an arch of understanding of the works and their keys. Wispelwey continued in his expert rhetorical style, adding to the dance characters contained within. As the evening progressed Wispelwey became even more generous with his daring and his phrases might well have been musically equivalent to “Why should I? Here’s another way! Now, do you see?”

The slow Sarabandes were unusually animalistic in character, and therefore, instantly refreshing. Of the six galanteries, the Bourrees of the C and E flat major Suites provided the most whimsy of the night: wry, playful and outgoing. Sure, at times one could hear some scratches and bumps, reminiscent of the crackle and hiss of gut strings. In a drier acoustic this might have been a problem.

Night three and Brahms Sonatas saw the return of Caroline Almonte in a concert that opened with the arrangement for cello and piano of the Op.78 Violin Sonata, tuned down a 4th for the cello into D major.

I suspect many in the audience recognised its suitability to the cello; particularly touching in this case was Wispelwey’s sparing use of vibrato and his knowledge of the room; how long to allow a note to decay coupled with a knack of knowing when to add spice and heat to the tone. The E minor Sonata Op.38 provides many moments to exploit the lower register, which Wispelwey did in spades. During the fastest final movement Allegro I have ever heard, Wispelwey’s impetuous playing was well met by Almonte in the final hurrah.

Brahms’ Op.99 F major Sonata gave ample opportunity for some necessary frisson between the two artists, as Wispelwey made heroic flourishes and some glorious pizzicato against Almonte’s chords in the slow Adagio affetuoso. Two encores followed, an appropriate one and an inappropriate one (according to Wispelwey, and stated with glee). Most of the audience revelled in the gag of the page turner/aka Dale Barltrop, MSO Concertmaster being dragged on stage to perform a slightly undercooked yet warm-hearted 1st movement of Brahms’ B major piano trio.

Some small criticism might be found in a discussion of intonation. Wispelwey errs deliberately on the sharp side for certain tonal areas, although this seems rather grounded in his system of highlighting emotional affect and meaning than any technical deficiency.

As a cellist myself I wondered what Wispelwey’s secret is in terms of stamina. This was a truly superhuman effort, which, apart from technical command, reveals a musical mind of abundant ideas.