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Profile: Pieter Wispelwey

Profile: Pieter Wispelwey

By Tim Munro

“A concert never works like a well-fitting shoe,” cellist Pieter Wispelwey once said in an interview with Gramophone. “There’s always something disappointing or which doesn’t work. On the other hand, while performing you’re always trying to be on the edge, things happen which you hadn’t thought of - that could go beyond certain expressions and you find new meanings; a greater intensity behind the elements”.

Danger and discovery are baked into the core of this mini-festival. On three successive nights, the Dutch cellist will perform the complete works for cello and piano by Beethoven and Brahms, and the solo cello suites by Bach. This is a project of truly epic scope, “a milestone week”, says Wispelwey, who finds the Melbourne Recital centre to be his perfect home, “a stunningly beautiful place to perform and listen to music”.

Wispelwey is that rarity in the classical music world, a truly openhearted, regenerative musician. Musicians “must work as creative artists”, he has said in a past interview, handling existing material with imagination, addressing traditions with a dose of skepticism, and encouraging “alternative approaches” in order “to keep your mind fresh.”

One way that Wispelwey sees these evergreen works with new eyes is to tour and record them on instruments of the period. These experiences push him “to evoke the explosivity, the freshness of early instruments”, even when playing on modern instruments (as in these MRC concerts), to capture “the excitement of how the first performance must have felt”.

At heart, Wispelwey is a passionate communicator. Central to his approach is to “reach out” to the listener with his playing, and not to “shy away from making things larger than life”. In a video for Strad magazine, Wispelwey says that “music can be about anything, about individual emotion, about traumas, elation. About panoramas, landscapes. Lake and ocean, or forest, or mountain. It is rock, it is fire”.

Brimming with enthusiasm, Wispelwey uses Brahms’ F major sonata as an example. “It is a rocky piece, awesome, powerful, great, heroic, fierce”, he says in the video, struggling to find superlatives, full of “storm, foam”. Contrasting it with the E minor sonata, “easy to play for both cello and piano”, the F major is “challenging, uncompromising, revolutionary”.

An essential part of Wispelwey’s approach is to understand each work’s character. Speaking in a past interview, he talks of Bach’s cello suites as if each were a distinct human being, and internal movements were different aspects of a personality. “When you present a shy character, say the Allemande of the First Suite, that shy persona can go through certain experiences and react in certain ways, and that will be different in each performance.”

Wispelwey’s playing balances elements he admires in his teachers. Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma was “more of a Lied singer”, playing with the sort of “inflection and words” that is essential for Bach, where “speech and rhetoric” are central. And English cellist William Pleeth "could display a raw, sensual, burning passion”, believing “that music has a larger message that we must unearth and convey with every fiber of our being”.

How does Wispelwey think his playing changed over the years? “I now approach with more freedom”, he has said in a past interview, giving “more expression, more personal interpretation, and maybe also more personal involvement”. His playing now has “more spice, also pepper and salt, and also herbs. A more sophisticated cocktail”, he adds with a laugh.


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