Ask any cellist their favourite music for the solo instrument and the chances are Bach’s suites will appear near the top of every list. Their versatility has also seen them transcribed for numerous instruments, viola and lute included, their popularity also evident in the cinema, recently making an appearance in Master And Commander.
There were no arrangements or films at the Wigmore Hall, though, just one man and his cello. Pieter Wispelwey, who has recorded this repertoire twice before, gave a captivating recital of the six suites to an appreciative audience, recorded by Radio 3 for broadcast just over a week later.
Programming the music is not easy but the organisers got it spot on. The first three (supposedly easier) works were followed by an interval, then the fourth and fifth with an hour break, then the incandescent sixth to close.
Wispelwey began with a radiant first suite, demonstrating a tasteful rhythmic flexibility in the Prelude, while making the Minuets bounce as if cueing in imaginary dancers. Occasionally the audience were included in this mild banter, to their great amusement, the cellist’s enjoyment of the music clear for all to see.
The bigger bones of the second suite were imbued with dark colourings, the elegiac Sarabande given plenty of room to breathe and the Gigue taken at a great lick. The expansive third completed a riveting first section, the Prelude treated as a fantasia and the dances dispatched with great verve.
The trouble with playing these suites in numerical order is the increase in difficulty that occurs throughout the cycle, yet that didn’t seem to bother the Dutch cellist, who performed the fourth and possibly toughest suite with great vigour and humour, probably the pinnacle of his achievements here. The echo passages in the Bourrée, some of Bach’s most humorous music, were brought off with plenty of elan.
De-tuning the top ‘A’ string for the fifth suite, Wispelwey visited darker colourings, making more of a demand on the audience but achieving a rare clarity in the fiendish fugue. The sixth, on the other hand, was heavenly, the brightly lit Sarabande and Bourrées a direct contrast to end the concert on the up.
Signing CDs afterwards, Wispelwey sipped from a well deserved glass of champagne. To play all six suites in an evening demands considerable stamina but was something this gifted cellist made light of, to the evident pleasure of all in attendance.