"Truly superhuman": Pieter Wispelwey wows Australian audiences with his "magical lightness"

7 September 2017

Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey's latest tour of Australia has been received enthusiastically be audiences and critics. He appeared with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a play-direct project of Haydn's Cello Concert No. 2 in D, played all six Bach Suites at Sydney City Recital Hall, gave a mixed programme of Brahms and Beethoven sonatas with pianist Carolyn Almonte, and a series of extraordinary recitals at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of their Great Performer Series, playing the complete Bach Suites, Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano, and the two cello sonatas by Brahms over the course of three consecutive evenings.

Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello (Sydney Symphony Orchestra / City Recital Hall, August 2017)

Pieter Wispelwey played all six of Bach's Suites for Cello with magical lightness, clarity and an imagination that seems to spontaneously call new musical shapes into being.

There was none of the heavy drawn quality that some cellists bring to this music particularly during chordal passages across multiple strings.

Rather, there was transparent colour with delicate inner light and sweetness, immaculately tuned and balanced. In the patterned arpeggiations of the Prelude in the first suite in G major, Wispelwey would plant each bass note like a marker in the listener's memory and then play the upper with growing fantasy as though taking flight.

The Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, by contrast was richly resonant, while that of the final Suite No. 6 in D, presented here with the additional challenge of encompassing a work written for a five strings on a four-stringed instrument, was cogent and structured, spinning its idea from a hypothesis based on a single repeated note.

The Sarabandes marked the still centre of each suite and a chance to focus on the simple shape of the melodic line and translucent beauty of sound.

In the more energetic dances, the Courantes, Minuets and Gigues, Wispelwey's rhythm is buoyant and free and, undergirded by great strength of pulse which, paradoxically allowed the greatest flexibility. The tonal freshness and originality of Wispelwey's thought will remain in the memory for a long time.

Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald (4.5 stars)

Bach, Brahms and Beethoven marathon (Melbourne Recital Centre, 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.

Classic Melbourne, Josephine Vains

Beethoven & Brahms: Sonatas (Ukaria, August 2017)

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect way to spend an afternoon than listening to great music in beautiful surroundings on a sunny winter’s afternoon.

Depending on your taste of course, this might mean listening to extremely loud Japanese industrial noise music in a grungy warehouse. Presumably that would appeal to very few of the capacity audience who attended this marvellous concert by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey and Australian pianist Carolyn Almonte. Wispelwey is a musician of prodigious energy, and his program for this concert is just one of several daunting programs that he is to play in Melbourne this coming week. Four substantial sonatas, three by Beethoven and one by Brahms, were cunningly arranged so that Beethoven’s middle period Sonata in A was followed by Brahms’s first cello sonata, which Wispelwey cheekily referred to as Beethoven’s ‘sixth cello sonata’; both are big, dramatic works. Few cellists could portray their tempestuous character as convincingly as Wispelwey, who is not afraid to shred his bow in the pursuit of emotional intensity.

In contrast, the second half contained two lyrical late sonatas by Beethoven – which came as something of a relief after a first half which was as exhausting to listen to – in a good way, to be sure – as it no doubt was to play. Wispelwey has a way of playing that makes you think he is making it up as he goes along; the mercurial changes of mood, the quirks and unexpected twists of late Beethoven, seem to emerge from his playing with perfectly natural spontaneity. He was magnificently partnered throughout by Carolyn Almonte, who was finely attuned to Wispelwey’s imaginative playing.

Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

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