Weilerstein brings out the lyric intimacy of Bach’s Cello Suites

February 16, 2019 at 1:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Alisa Weilerstein performed Bach's complete Cello Suites Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Alisa Weilerstein performed Bach’s complete Cello Suites Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Bach’s Cello Suites pose a supreme challenge for any cellist.  The best performances tend to strike a balance between rhythmic crispness and lyrical flow, as well as exploring the expressive potential of the slower music, not least the Sarabandes.

Alisa Weilerstein emphasizes a more songlike approach in this Everest of solo literature. When she tackled the complete suites in her Celebrity Series recital Friday night at Jordan Hall, Bach’s music took on an almost Romantic quality that delivered a fresh prospective to this beloved repertoire.

Performing all six suites in one sitting is a challenge for any musician, and Weilerstein brought out the nuances of each with commitment and fierce concentration. Throughout the evening, she varied and colored her tone—low passages were dark yet vibrant, while her middle and upper ranges took on a silvery sonority well suited to her lush interpretation.

Weilerstein could have drawn more attention to the different dance styles contained in each suite. While some movements were lilting, her tempos were just broad enough to offset their regular meters. But the cellist’s svelte reading ultimately paid dividends. For her, Bach’s dance forms are merely the frameworks on which to hang a lyrical phrase, and her reading resulted in a deep personal statement.

That was especially true of the Sarabandes. The Sarabande from Suite No. 3 in C major was spacious, even sensuous. In Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, Weilerstein approached the same dance as if it were a miniature tone poem. Her melody unspooled in a long line, the double and triple stops adorning each phrase like jewels on a necklace.

Weilerstein performed the suites in numerical order, which proved a practical choice as the Minuets of Suites Nos. 1 and 2, the Bourrées of Nos. 3 and 4, and Gavottes of Nos. 5 and 6 could be heard side-by-side. Each Suite, too, has a distinctive character, and the cellist, like an actor delivering a monologue, shaded each set with wide dynamics and graceful tempos to highlight every subtlety.

The Prelude of Suite No. 1 in G major seemed like an expression of unfulfilled longing, and she carried that feeling into the Allemande, which she shaped with generous rubato. Even the Courante, with its difficult double stops, managed to unfold like an operatic aria.

In the Suite No. 2 in D minor, Weilerstein brought an additional dimension to the music as each line hinted at underlying harmony. The Gigue, though monophonic, was almost fugue-like, its coursing melody giving the impression of a thick, web-like texture.

Her performance of Suite No. 5 in C minor was more contemplative. Softening her tone for the Prelude and Allemande, Weilerstein conveyed all the mystery and solace wrapped in this sparse music. In the Sarabande’s repeat, her phrases were like a whisper. She also captured the suite’s wild contrasts, digging in for furious Gavottes and Gigue.

Only in the Suite No. 6 in D major did her performance falter somewhat. Bach wrote this suite for a five-string instrument, which extended the cello’s upper range. Modern cellists, though, are called upon to render its punishingly high tessitura by reaching high onto the fingerboard. Doing so in the Prelude, Weilerstein missed the mark on some of the quick-changing harmonies, which unfortunately fell out of tune.

The Courante, with its rustic vitality, fared better. The ensuing Sarabande was searching, the Gavottes even dainty. In the final Gigue, Weilerstein unleashed Bach’s drama, tossing off the nimble melody and accompanying harmonies to bring the audience to its feet.

The Celebrity Series will present pianist Beatrice Rana in music by Chopin, Ravel, and Stravinsky 8 p.m. February 27 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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