Wispelwey and Bach's Enigmatic Fourth Cello Suite
On The Bach Hour, cellist Pieter Wispelwey reveals the mysterious qualities that make the composer's Cello Suite No. 4 unique, and Il Gardelino performs the Cantata No. 32, an expression of longing and resolution.
On the program:
Cantata BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (translation) - Caroline Weynants, soprano; Patrick van Goethem, countertenor; Il Gardelino, Marcel Ponseele, director
Suite No. 4 in E-flat for solo cello, BWV 1010 - Pieter Wispelwey, cello
Pieter Wispelwey: The cellist cannot play his instrument as in the first three suites. I mean making it sound gloriously in number three, but still resonant in number two, and open and easy in number one, there’s nothing of that in number four.
Brian McCreath: Pieter Wispelwey’s 2012 recording of the six Cello Suites by J.S. Bach is a set of richly personal performances. They were undertaken with a from-the-ground-up, total reconsideration of notes, phrases, and movements that had already accompanied his entire life as a musician.
The results are startling and magnetic.
The Fourth of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, with Pieter Wispelwey, is coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I'm Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston, 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH. Each week our program brings you both sacred and secular masterpieces by the cornerstone composer of Western music, Johann Sebastian Bach, in performances as vital as the music itself. For today, that formula takes us to the Cantata No. 32, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, or “Dearest Jesus, my desire,” and you can find a translation of the text of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you’ll find much more of Bach’s music, including an on-demand archive of The Bach Hour, as well as videos and links to essential resources to further your own explorations. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
As you heard, we’ll hear from Pieter Wispelwey, both in his own words, and in his performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4, a bit later on in the program.
For now, we’ll turn to a cantata inspired by the Bible’s only story that depicts Jesus as a child. It takes place when the 12-year-old Jesus and his family travel to Jerusalem. When it’s time to leave and return to Nazareth, Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph, don’t realize that their son isn’t with them. They rush back to Jerusalem and search the city for three days before finally finding Jesus at the Temple, sitting with the teachers there, asking questions and astounding them with his understanding.
When Bach drew on that story for his Cantata No. 32, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, or “Dearest Jesus, my desire,” his focus wasn’t on depicting the wise-beyond-his-years young Jesus. Rather, the spotlight in this piece is on Mary and the utter despair she felt during those three days of looking for her child. It’s a dynamic and emotion practically any parent who’s lost track of his or her child – even for a few minutes – can relate to. From that parental perspective, Bach – himself the father of 20 children in all – builds what’s called a “dialogue cantata,” in which we continue to hear Mary’s voice, simultaneously inhabiting the voice of an anxious and worried individual believer. The second voice in the “dialogue” is that of Jesus, sung by a bass soloist.
The first movement opens with the sweet longing of a solo oboe, Mary’s voice entering with the words, “Dearest Jesus, my desire, tell me, where can I find you?”
A recitative for the bass soloist answers with Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Luke. That’s followed by an aria that reassures the believer with, “Here in my Father’s place a troubled spirit finds Me.”
The two soloists then sing a recitative together, Mary, again, doubling as the Soul of a believer, saying, “I’ll come there to find you,” and Jesus answering, “If you will renounce earthly toys and enter this dwelling alone, then you can remain both here and there.”
The emotional high point of the cantata arrives in an duet that begins with the words, “Now all trouble disappears, now crying and pain dissolve.”
A chorale in the voice of the community ends the piece with an affirmation of the bond between believer and divine.
Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 32 by the Belgian ensemble Il Gardelino, led by the group’s founder, Marcel Ponseele, who doubles as the oboe soloist. They’re joined by soprano Caroline Weynants and baritone Lieven Termont, with countertenor Patrick van Goethem and tenor Marcus Ullmann joining the group for the final chorale, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC - BWV 32]
Bach’s Cantata No. 32, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, or “Dearest Jesus, my desire,” a dialogue cantata sung by Caroline Weynants and baritone Lieven Termont, with Il Gardelino and that group’s founder and oboist Marcel Ponseele. Joining in for the final chorale were countertenor Patrick van Goethem and tenor Marcus Ullmann.
As he approached his 50th birthday, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey had already, over the course of his career, recorded the six solo cello suites by Bach twice. So what better way to celebrate the half-century mark than a return to Bach, right?
The musical landscape of these pieces on paper is much less specific than other works by Bach, with almost no indication from the composer about how the music is meant to be played. They’re like a color by numbers – with each artist deciding on his or her own which color goes with which number. The essential musical shapes are always there, but no two performers sound exactly the same.
Pieter Wispelwey’s 2012 recording of the six suites confirms that, even with the same performer, we’re likely to get different results when years of experience are factored in. That’s how rich these pieces are.
Pieter Wispelwey reconsidered everything in his approach to this recording, including the very pitch of the notes. He decided to tune his cello so that the note A would vibrate 392 times per second, or, in shorthand, A 392. That’s in contrast to the pitch modern orchestras use, which is generally A 440. It means that the notes Wispelwey plays sound lower than those of many other recordings of the Bach suites.
But what’s behind the decision to play at 392? Pieter Wispelwey says that you can trace it back to one of Bach’s early jobs:
CLIP - bach130113_wispelwey_ivw_1
Pieter Wispelwey: In Cöthen, when Bach worked there, it wasn't the universal pitch for Germany. It was closer to a universal pitch for France. It's a French pitch. So it's a low pitch, it's a semitone down, the normal baroque pitch that we have used over the last few decades. So Bach's music from Cöthen, where he composed most of the major secular pieces like the Brandenburg Concertos and so forth, they were performed and therefore conceived with that pitch in mind. So it was about time that I played those pieces on that pitch. So I was very curious what it would do. I mean, it was a risky thing to do because it was new, but it was good to have a fresh approach and I got the opportunity to use this Dutch baroque cello from 1710, the Rombouts. And as a musician you adapt to the particular instrument you’re playing on, and you let yourself be inspired and influenced.
Brian McCreath: Along with the unique sound and inspirational quality of that instrument, Wispelwey also enlisted the help of a couple of musicologists, Lawrence Dreyfus of Oxford University and John Butt of Glasgow University. In the DVD that accompanies this recording, you can hear them speculate together that these suites were probably written in two groups, the first three being somewhat more idiomatic for the cello, and the last three bringing out Bach’s radical, experimental side. The Suite No. 4, then, is the first of that second group, and Pieter Wispelwey describes it as an
Pieter Wispelwey: Enigma, a mystery. Yeah. The cellist cannot play his instruments as he has just done in the first three Suites, I mean, making it sound gloriously in number three but still resonant in number two, and open and easy in number one, there's nothing of that in number four. So it is different tools, different different messages, therefore. Enigmatic, more hidden, obscure, are the words. We've got E-flat major. And of course, that means three flats and three is very meaningful in Christianity. And here's a prelude that starts with a two octave jump. [SINGS] So the challenge for cellists, especially to avoid a nine eighth bar. That this should be presented as something completely natural, and it carries on for a large number of bars. And E-flat, the tonality is established and then things start to become extremely interesting, the second movement is an elegant movement and it's streaming 16th.
It's a lot of legato and but it's also a very patient movement. It's aristocratic in an intriguing way. And then you get this fantastic fourth sarabande with some large harmonic, well, adventures, and quite a few big, big triple stops. But then it does return to this sobering banners while the singing motif [SINGS]. So you get drama, but it's answered with with complete humility. It's emotionally this is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful movement. Then you get a big bourée. Very, very energetic, actually. And like the bourée in the third, quite humorous, flashy, even flashier then the third bourée. I mean, you get these fast runs. [SINGS]. But later on, you got [SINGS] Interjections. Exciting, exciting bourée and a very rough second bourée. Vvery short, very funny. And an overwhelming Italian gigue at the end. And there's [SINGS]. That's a wild stream. Yeah.
Brian McCreath: And that one maybe is also one of those places where this lower pitch that you're using really, really bites. It's really something that just vibrates.
Pieter Wispelwey: Yeah, this is a difficulty, is that there are no, hardly any high notes to say big things with. It's middle register and lots of bottom string, uh, notes. So it's, yeah, it makes it awkward, but also very special.
Brian McCreath: And here is the Cello Suite No. 4, performed by Pieter Wispelwey, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 1010]
The Suite No. 4 in E-flat for Solo Cello by Bach. Pieter Wispelwey was the cellist, in a 2012 recording.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.