With his keen, adventurous musical intellect and an interpretative idiosyncrasy that breathes new life into the standard repertoire, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey is fast assuming a hallowed place in the cellist pantheon. Influenced by the revolutionary Early Music movement in the Netherlands under luminaries such as Anner Bylsma, Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt, Wispelwey gained great acclaim with his first recording of the Bach cello suites on baroque cello. His repertoire, however, spans many centuries. A much lauded recording of Benjamin Britten’s cello suites followed swiftly on the heels of his Bach recording and he is equally at home on baroque and modern cello as he is playing Bach, Dvorak, Lutoslawski or Crumb. Wispelwey is currently touring Japan with a program of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, and The Japan Times caught up with him to talk about the music that he is perhaps best-known for — the endlessly fascinating Bach cello suites.
What was your first memorable experience with the Bach cello suites?
I heard Anner Bylsma perform the Bach suites for the first time when I was 15. It was overwhelming — a total shock, not so much the style of his playing but its magic. It became a milestone in my life. Bylsma was later my teacher, but I never did Bach with him on purpose.
You taught yourself?
Yes, I’m practically an autodidact. You can only learn a baroque instrument by trying it, and the rest is style, which you can absorb and you can read about, just a few hundred pages of treatises, and the rest is really practicing and listening and being creative. Preparing for concerts with Bach on the baroque cello, and preparing the first recording I did, I just had to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours on my cello, making a language, building my style.
You were considered an enfant terrible of the music scene. Why?
I was never part of the Early Music scene. I never wanted to be part of the scene. I was going to be a cellist — not a baroque cellist. So I was looked down by people from the mainstream and I was not recognized by people from the Early Music scene.
But you have a reputation for being a baroque cellist.
Yes, and it’s extraordinarily annoying. I was 27 or so when I released my first recording of the Bach suites on baroque cello. I’d only had the baroque cello for two years, but the Bach was repertoire that I’d performed and knew intimately. I realized the danger of being stigmatized as a baroque cellist. People might look at me and say, “Ah, a baroque cellist, we can’t have him play a Dvorak concerto.” So I released the Benjamin Britten suites a few months later. Didn’t work. People still thought of me as a baroque cellist. Then I released the Beethoven cello sonatas on classical cello and hammerklavier, and a month later I made sure there was a release of a Kodaly and Crumb CD. Didn’t work either.
You recorded the Bach cello suites first in 1990, and then again in 1998. How had your interpretation changed in the meantime?
Performance experience has changed my approach to this music. If there is a direction, the direction is toward freedom. That means more expression, maybe the rules are moving into the background, and the message becomes more important. Obviously I have different ideas about tempos and character. Also, recording is an area where I’m still learning — feeling free in front of a microphone, not feeling how it should be, how people will judge it, just following my instincts and trusting there is enough basic intelligence to carry these instincts.
Do you think there’s an over-reverence toward the Bach cello suites?
Yes, and that’s true for classical music in general. It’s a little stiffened by seriousness. Obviously, I take the music very seriously, but I also take expressing unserious methods very seriously. The suites are worldly music, not oratorio. Five out of six movements in each suite are dance movements. There should be a happiness of physical movement, a well-being, physical harmony, a joie de vivre. I can’t relate to an attitude where every note is filled with an almost biblical heaviness.
You have said that 20th century music bears some resemblance to baroque music. How is that so?
In the gestures, the meaning a simple motif can have, motifs in baroque music and contemporary music can be the most important elements in the music, whereas in 19th century music or homophonic music, it’s the melody, or the harmony. In Baroque music, it’s the composition of motifs and counterpoint, the interaction of motifs, and that’s true for contemporary music to a certain extent.
There is much debate in Early Music about balancing an authentic style with a musician’s own interpretative decisions? Where do you stand on this issue?
There’s style and there’s interpretation, and interpretation only becomes meaningful if the style works, if the style has logic. Music blooms within the musician’s understanding of the period and its instruments, the music’s style frame. Without the style frame, you miss out on certain meanings and gestures. But then music is a human statement. It is highly personal, or it should be. I could imitate another musician, but it would just be an imitation, it would be, by definition, false. There are maybe a few useful rules, but then you don’t only follow rules, you play with them.