The Dutch cellist talks about the pleasures and challenges of performing a three-night marathon of the masters’ cello works.

When did you first have the idea for the three-night marathon of all of the Beethoven Sonatas, the Bach Suites and the Brahms Sonatas?

The triple marathon is something I always wanted to do, so I’m very happy it’s happening. I’ve done the combination of Bach and Beethoven quite a few times, performing them in a very short time span, like consecutive days or one day in between or in a festival. But I am now completely preoccupied with recording all of the Brahms and Schubert works for piano and other instruments, so Brahms is very much on my menu. Performing Brahms is just so delightful and satisfying and it’s such a rich musical world. It’s very uplifting to reside in for a while.

Performing the six Bach Suites, which is something that I’ve done all my life, it’s obvious that it works. It’s a slightly longer process than the normal concert programmes, but what is a normal concert programme? A normal concert programme is what we started doing in the 20th century, but in the 19th century, programmes were either half an hour, or three or four hours, there was no standard concert. So doing six Bach Suites takes about three hours including intervals and it’s a wonderful journey every time you do it – and that’s true for both player and listener. So that remains rewarding.

Doing the whole of the Beethoven Sonatas is only similar in the sense that you stay within a certain style, but with Beethoven, of course, you’ve got two pieces by the 26-year-old, two pieces by the 46-year-old and one by the 35-year-old. You get a whole life, a whole biography in music, which is a very exciting thing.

Pieter Wispelwey, CelloCellist Pieter Wispelwey. Photo © Simon Shiff

That’s a lot a repertoire to have on the boil all at once. How do you prepare for something like that?

I’ll be rehearsing and discussing with Caroline [Almonte, the pianist he will perform with] – that’s how I will be preparing. I can perform this any time during the day. I can perform it tonight, it’s ready to go, but rehearsing… I mean I could even do it without rehearsing, but it’s so much fun to talk about, to try out extreme things that you wouldn’t do necessarily in a concert, but that still could be useful in preparation for a concert performance.

With so much music from one composer on each night, is it a challenge to mentally switch gears from one to the other?

Musicians are so used to using their buttons. If you have different pieces of different composers in one programme, you do it all, you just do it. You switch from Stravinsky to Mozart to Mendelssohn and you have to do it instantly in the normal recital or concert programme. So when it’s consecutive days, you can move easily from Beethoven to Bach – the mindset comes instantly once the bow touches the strings.

How different are the three composers in their writing for the cello?

Quite different. Of course, there’s an enormous amount of time between them. There’s a century between Bach and Beethoven, and it’s about 50 to 70 years between Beethoven and Brahms. There is a lot of big singing in Brahms and the cellist has to compete with bigger piano writing. In reality, it’s a bigger sounding piano, and a bigger texture in Brahms’ writing than in Beethoven, which is slightly more transparent and written for an instrument with less sheer volume of sound.

In Beethoven there is still much more use of articulation and supple phrasing, though that doesn’t mean the piano part isn’t full of explosive moments. It’s fantastic to join in as a cellist in those moments. That explosivity is typically Beethoven, the power and romantic singing is in Brahms, and playing Bach – that’s a completely different cello. It’s a broad cello that it’s written for, and it’s all about the storytelling and talking and dancing.

Will you be using a modern cello for all three concerts in Melbourne?

I am afraid so. I should be bringing five cellos for this project, but I just can’t.

The Bach Cello Suites are obviously a staple in your repertoire, and have been all your life. How do you think your relationship with those works has evolved over that time?

It’s all about feeling less and less inhibited over the years, feeling the freedom of expression more and more. We know the boundaries, we know the limits – not so much the limits, but the grammar of the language which makes it meaningful, which makes language meaningful and expressive. But within that grammar one is able to create more and more personal space.

The Bach Suites are a cornerstone of the cello repertoire. Are the Beethoven Sonatas as significant in the repertoire?

Totally. It’s only Beethoven that wrote such a big number of cello pieces of that incredible quality. Brahms wrote the two cello sonatas, Mendelssohn wrote two, most of the others wrote one. There’s one Shostakovich, there’s one Prokofiev, there’s one Chopin sonata. They’re hugely significant, the Beethoven, the fact that there are five and that they’re written throughout his life. It’s a little bit like the piano sonatas or the string quartets. You’ve got early, middle and late Beethoven represented in that body of work, which is tremendous.

Aside from the length of the programme and rehearsal time, what are the challenges or goals that you might be aiming for when presenting this music?

If it works, it’s all about effortless concentration, and it’s about flying – or surfing. The beauty of presenting five Beethoven sonatas is that you pull the audience into that world, whereas during maybe the first half hour, there’s still a process of adapting to a different world. They’re all coming from work, or home, or whatever transportation, and they find themselves in a recital hall, and at some point the music takes over, and there is no effort required any more to let the music speak in all its richness.

In the first half hour, or first piece, a listener might have to make an effort to really enjoy all that’s happening, but then the music becomes so transparent and direct, with all the meaning on the surface, and there will be an evolution of the ear during the concert.

What attracts you to Haydn’s Second Concerto, which you’re playing with the Sydney Symphony?

These are again cornerstones of the repertoire. They’re so famous and well known and loved, yet still when you present them, they’re full of beams and full of life. Rehearsing them with an orchestra brings pleasure somehow, because of course we all know the music, but just to get a few details really tight and sharp and expressive always adds an important dimension. There is a risk with music that’s so well known that you go onto a sort of automatic pilot, but once you make sure you don’t, and really look at details and check if they are delivered properly, then the music comes to life in a fantastic way.


Pieter Wispelwey performs the Bach Suites at City Recital Hall, Sydney August 6 – 7, Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 2 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on August 10, and a marathon of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms at Melbourne Recital Centre, August 15 –18.