Now reading

Pieter Wispelwey by Chloe Hooper

Pieter Wispelwey by Chloe Hooper

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey delighted Melbourne Recital Centre audiences over three consecutive evenings in August, playing works by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in three epic recitals. Our 2017 Writer-in-Residence Chloe Hooper was there to capture this unforgettable experience.

Fragments of Bach’s Cello Suites are coming through the doors marked ‘Dressing Room 1’. It’s the morning after the first of Pieter Wispelwey’s three concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Twelve hours earlier a rapt audience had watched the Dutch cellist seemingly channel Beethoven, and afterwards he had felt too charged to get much sleep. No one else appears to be back stage, but he has already been practicing for hours.   

Through the wall an intricate musical conversation continues, and there’s the dilemma of whether to knock. But Wispelwey, a puckish man in his mid-fifties, is too well mannered to show irritation at being interrupted. He leaves his Guadagnini in its case and walks out the stage door into the bright, mid-morning sun. Rain had been forecast and Wispelway throws his head back, basking in the light like in a stellar review. 

At the café, he orders morning tea and picks an out-of-the-way table, then with an absurdist flourish positions the steel-framed table number in the middle of the footpath, visible now to any waiting staff.

This is the first time the cellist has played three different programs on consecutive nights. The triathlon is an experiment, although not “in the sense that it can fail.” This is music Wispelwey knows intimately: “The pieces are personal friends. I’m hugging melodies I’ve played on different continents, and in different circumstances, and different stages of my life.” He calculates he’s performed this repertoire, “thirty, forty, fifty times a year” over a thirty-five year career. “I love passages and atmospheres, and to revisit and dig deeper or dig in a different spot.”

In last night’s concert he was moved again by the overlay of Beethoven’s astonishing biography on the five cello sonatas: “Seriously, this is an individual who was full of character, and ambition, and willpower; embracing the universe and reveling in his own talent.”

Could that, ahem, be a description of Wispelwey himself? 

“No,” he answers, resolutely. “Absolutely not.”

“But on stage—?” On stage we had watched him sing the cello to life, making every note sound alive.

“Well, of course,” he interjects. “That’s why it’s so uplifting, because suddenly you feel at the centre of something that’s quite intense. And you are there to be commanding, mastering the situation, controlling the atmosphere—that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he adds, as if the metaphysics of performance is really no great mystery.


The next day Wispelwey is about to leave the stage after a sound check, when he glances back at the position of his wooden rise. “Is there a sweet spot?” he asks the concert manager, Kevin de Zilva. 

They agree it’s a matter of perception, and Wispelwey returns to his dressing room. He has again slept less than the recommended adult dose. His Bach recital has perhaps been an even greater success than the Beethoven, with Wispelwey tunneling deeply through the Cello Suite’s profundities. Now he has circles under his eyes. Dealing with this level of adrenaline alone must be a feat, but he claims not to be tired. If he weren’t performing, he says, he’d still be practicing six hours a day.

This night Wispelwey and the pianist Caroline Almonte will perform three Brahms sonatas. “This is a program where I can just sing, the Brahms is mainly about carrying that storyline through song.” He is conscious that these are works of an older composer. “There is nostalgia in Brahms, always, and sheer beauty.” 

But at this moment, Wispelwey wants to return to his hotel to sleep before the concert. The dressing room has large plate glass windows showcasing grey-skied Sturt Street. Rain is sheeting down, and the Maestro is not prepared to sleep on the room’s sleek modern couch. He has been holding the bow as if he might find and draw out some secret music in the atmosphere, but he puts it down to watch the rain, and as the visitor opens the door to leave, for a moment he sits in silence.

- Chloe Hooper

You might also be interested in