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Wispelwey: Loneliness of the long-distance cellist

LEIDEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey has recorded the haunting, delightful and soul-uplifting Bach Six Suites for Solo Cello three times and still he's not finished.
/ Source: Reuters

LEIDEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey has recorded the haunting, delightful and soul-uplifting Bach Six Suites for Solo Cello three times and still he's not finished.

His next, he says, is his "Lost in Translation" version, referring to the Bill Murray movie about an actor coming to terms with an alien culture in Tokyo.

Wispelwey is doing the same, flying into the Japanese capital for recording sessions in the early morning hours.

When it is released, he wants to strew CDs of portions of the Bach suites around Tokyo for people to find them, he told Reuters over a three-course dinner served during intervals as he performed in this Dutch university town.

"That's my ideal," he said. "I want the Tokyo preludes, the Tokyo gigues, the Tokyo allemandes."

At this stage in his career, the 50-year-old Wispelwey who first fell in love with the cello's growling sound at the age of two while listening to an amateur quartet in which his father played violin, can be indulged.

Growing up in a small country at a time when it did not have much of an established conservatory tradition, he more or less is a self-made cellist, though he has had several of the world's best teachers, among them compatriot Anner Bylsma.

He made his name in the Netherlands by putting on recitals in his late teens of all the mainstream repertoire for solo cello, renting the hall himself, getting the tickets distributed and playing it all from memory.

He got his international credentials with his first 1990 recording of the Bach suites, for the Channel Classics label, which became one of the gold-standard versions.

His latest, and third version, is unique for tuning his baroque cello, with gut rather than modern steel strings, to a much lower pitch than A at 440 hertz, or slightly higher, which is the standard for modern orchestras, pianos, wind instruments and pretty much everything.

Wispelwey has done it at 397 hertz, a full tone below the modern A tuning, and a semitone, or half tone, below the usual baroque A which is 415 hertz.

There are theoretical reasons, including evidence it was the pitch Bach would have known. But more importantly, the sound world is different.

"If the general public comes in to hear the Bach suites on a baroque cello they need almost an hour just to adjust to that sound world and it's not surprising," he said, between gulps of food and before taking a shower to refresh for the continuation of one of the most demanding recital programs, for soloist and audience alike.

"We're used to a steely, projecting laser beam of a sound and this has shades, it has color and it has the overtones. That's why we can hear it. It has this very particular shine. but it's a shine of nobility."

Here's what else he had to say about Bach's appeal today, the mystical "Black Sarabande" and why it can sometimes seem a bit lonely being a cello soloist:

Q: What is it about Bach's music, written in the early 18th century, that speaks to us three centuries later with such power, if not to say God-like authority?

A: "One is the magic of Bach. Even in the sparse notes of the cellos suites there is a narrative and it becomes more hypnotic the less you hear and the less you hear it filled in. It's the hypnotic element of being carried away by so little. That said, the concentration of the listener is tunneled and first there's an emotion of being narrowed but then the opposite happens.

"After an hour that tunnel gives suddenly way to the biggest panorama you'd ever want to see. It starts meaning everything, the small world becomes the big world and everything starts shining and becoming meaningful...Bach's brain was all over the place all the time. That's why we're so eternally intrigued at what kind of creativity was at work there."

Q: In the Suite No. 5, there's a movement you call the "Black Sarabande". Why?

A: "It's painful, not nice. There is comfort in it but death is there. It's about blackness, about dust and with the gut C string it sounds like dust, it sounds like throwing something into the grave or a last breath - it's all there. The first four bars are a sort of solar system, all those notes hanging in space but they are somehow related...It's dark and light and death and life. It's so simple that its meaning expands in space. The simpler it is the more meaningful it seems to be."

Q: Of course you don't play only Bach - though you play these suites a lot. Two days from now you are doing a Schubert program and you also play modern composers like Ligeti and Crumb. Is it hard finding sufficient repertoire for an instrument which, let's face it, has never been as big a crowd pleaser as the violin?

A: "It (Bach) does sound like you are playing really serious, profound music, so that's good, and the other thing of course is the cello repertoire is so small that when we have six pieces by the greatest composer of all time, well, then, of course... There are 15 great cello concertos against 40 great violin concertos. The cello was emancipated (from its accompaniment role) late. Then look at the 20th century. We have Mstislav Rostropovich and suddenly we get this tsunami by the great composers..."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)