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“Weilerstein’s cello is her id. She doesn’t give the impression that making music involves will at all. She and the cello seem simply to be one and the same.” — Los Angeles Times

Recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, Alisa Weilerstein has taken the world by storm with her virtuosic command and impassioned musicianship. Her recording of the Elgar & Carter cello concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin was named the 2013 Recording of the Year by BBC Music magazine, and her recoding of Dvořák’s Cello Concert topped the US charts in 2015. For 92Y she gives a marathon performance of Bach’s complete Suites for Solo Cello, one of the summits of the cellist's art.

Alisa Weilerstein, cello 

BACH: Complete Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012
Suite No. 1 in G major
Suite No. 2 in D minor
Suite No. 3 in C major
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major
Suite No. 5 in C minor 
Suite No. 6 in D major

 

Corresponding Class: Sun, Apr 16: Bach: The Suites for Solo Cello

► NPR Café Concert: Alisa Weilerstein plays the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3

► Alisa Weilserstein plays the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5



 

WWD interviews Alisa Weilerstein, Apr 23, 2015

Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

J.S. Bach: The Lord of the Dance
The six Suites that Bach composed for solo cello come from the seven-year period (1717–1723) that he spent as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. The young Prince (in his 20s while Bach was there) spent upwards of a quarter of his income on music making, and often joined in himself. In addition to the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin — all works of monumental creative imagination and accomplishment — also date from this period.

Worship in Cöthen at the time was Calvinist and Pietist in liturgy and esthetic, requiring no elaborate music, and Bach’s duties for the music-loving Prince were almost entirely secular. Why Bach became fascinated with the challenge of writing music for unaccompanied melody instruments at a time when his official workload was dance-oriented remains a mystery of genius, but he certainly took the conventional dance suite into rarefied realms with this music.

All six of the Cello Suites have the same overall form, similar to other dance suites of the time, such as Bach’s own “English” Suites for keyboard. Each opens with a prelude, followed by binary dances: an allemande, a courante, two modish French galanterien, and a gigue. The Cello Suites are more austere and yet earthier than their violin counterparts, leaner in texture but more physically humanized. Bach may well have played his solo violin music himself, but the cello works were probably composed for Christian Bernard Linike, or possibly Christian Ferdinand Abel, although the later’s acknowledged virtuosity on the bass viol is only assumed to extend to the cello. Bach’s autograph score for the Cello Suites is lost, and the earliest surviving copy is by Anna Magdalena, his second wife, made sometime around 1727 for a musician visiting to take lessons with her husband.
Photo: Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen
© 2016, John Henken

 

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BACH: Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born in Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009

Composed c. 1720, 21 minutes

The C-major Suite takes us on the sunny side of the street, warmly sensuous with the resonance of the instrument’s open strings. The Prelude is almost entirely in continuous, even 16th notes, piling up pealing arpeggiated chords over pedal tones — 16 bars over the open G string at one point — until grand rhetorical silences are needed to let the accumulated resonance, psychic as much as sonic, dissipate.

The Allemande is equally radiant and joyfully vigorous, like the leaping Courante. Both also pick up the Prelude’s opening key-defining gambit of a descending two-octave scale and/or arpeggio. The rich and spacious Sarabande flirts with the dark side, landing solidly in the remote key of D minor in the middle of its extended second section. The rustic Bourrées are earthy and good-natured, while the exuberant Gigue is sly and playful, teeming with rhythmic games.
© 2016, John Henken

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BACH: Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1012

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1012

Composed c. 1720, 24 minutes

The Fourth Suite is one of the warmest and simplest at the surface, but rich in contrast and subtext. The Prelude, for example, begins with placidly falling broken chords, almost beatific in its inwardness and regularity. But the chords gradually become more dissonant and simply reversing the downward motion increases the tension dramatically, until a descending bass line under four bars of G-minor crashes onto a raised sixth. The second half of the Prelude struggles to work itself back from this point, breaking out into roulades of swirling and twirling 16th notes that contend the rest of the movement with the broken chords, like Art Tatum tiring of a Czerny etude.

The Allemande flows elegantly with just enough rhythmic step to keep its dance origin in mind — and in gently tapping toes. The volatile, highly kinetic Courante varies its 8th note patterns with volleys of 16ths and gigue-like triplets. As in all of the suites, the Sarabande is the emotional center. Here though, it is tender and exquisitely refined rather than pained or otherworldly, characterized by its aristocratic dotted rhythms and mellow harmony.

The vigorous Bourrées are probably the best-known portions of this Suite as excerpts. The first is zesty and athletic, the miniature second one an affecting contrast with a hesitating, syncopated gait. The concluding Gigue is as earthy and robustly muscled as the first Bourrée and even more intricately patterned in its 12/8 moto perpetuo flights.
© 2016, John Henken

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BACH: Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Composed c. 1720, 25 minutes

For Bach, C minor was a key for pain and suffering, and this is the toughest and most serious of the suites. (Bach also arranged this Suite for lute, BWV 995.) Bach further darkens the sonority with a scordatura tuning, lowering the top A string to G. The Prelude is in two parts, the opening gravely ceremonial in the French style and duple meter, followed by a gigue-like dance in triple meter. But this is a dance of death, relentlessly pushed to a crushing climax on a diminished seventh chord, before finding its chromatic way to the safe haven of C major. The Allemande continues this heroic epic, with multiple-stopped chords on most downbeats anchoring the struggle. The Courante is also weighty in the French manner and also rooted by dense multiple-stopped chords.

In the Sarabande, however, there are no multiple stops, and the steady rhythmic movement is almost placid. But the haunted harmonies implied by this entirely linear piece are achingly dissonant, and the line is stressed almost to breaking by disjunct leaps. Multiple stops return with the stamping tread of the first Gavotte, in clear contrast to the flowing triplets of the second Gavotte. In the bumptious Gigue, some unsettling rhythmic irregularities to remind us of the past struggles.
© 2016, John Henken

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BACH: Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008

Composed c. 1720, 20 minutes

The somber darkness — serious, not operatically dramatized — that characterizes the Suite No. 2 is immediately apparent in flowing, asymmetrically patterned music. Bach uses actual sequences sparingly, as linear intensifiers, preferring to manipulate small motifs such as the opening rising triad, which is strikingly expanded about a two-thirds of the way through, leading to a pause on a dominant seventh chord. The ensuing bars are basically an interrupted cadence chromatically elaborated, with an emphatic chordal close. The stately Allemande that follows also plays with rhythmic variations, although without the Prelude’s sense of suspended time. The vigorous Courante is even more clock-bound, reveling in kinetically measured, corporeal time: the music of the spheres as celestial ballet.

Again, the Sarabande is not just the chronological center, but also the emotional and spiritual pivot. Here it is the most transcendent, soul-plumbing movement, but also the most physically embodied in double (and triple) stopping and ornamentation. The first Menuetto picks up that physicality with solemn gusto, firmly rooted in chordal harmony and dance accents. The light, bright Menuetto II is in D major, and Bach emphasizes the contrasting mode immediately, beginning with a trill on F-sharp.

As robust — even joyful — and unbuttoned as music in D minor can probably be, the final Gigue audibly guides dancing feet while quickening hearts. It is the most recursively sequenced music in the Suite and the most extrovert, zestily absorbed in the moment.
© 2016, John Henken

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BACH: Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (c. 1720)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

Composed c. 1720, 18 minutes

Like the C-major Suite, the one in G gets many of its motivic impulses and gestural tricks from exploitation of the cello’s open strings. This is immediately apparent in the rocking Prelude, its first bars swinging over the open G string. Bach drives the movement to its emphatic final cadence with a tight dance around the open A string, which he unbuttons in a variation of the opening passage, now over the dominant D string.

The Allemande is gracious and flowing, in contrast with the playful bounce of the Courante. This is the shortest of the Suites, and its Sarabande is uncommonly compact. But Bach packs a fully evolved harmonic world into just two eight-bar phrases, a richly detailed world that spins on a characteristically Bachian spiritual axis. The first of the Menuettos is a blithely leaping affair. Its partner, however flips to the minor mode with elegant restraint. To close, Bach offers a seemingly conventional take on an Italian gigue. But its second section is expanded with harmonic detours and feet-baffling rhythmic hiccoughs.
© 2016, John Henken

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BACH: Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012

Composed c. 1720, 28 minutes

The dimensions of the suites gradually increase, and the last of them was also written for an unusual five-string cello. The range and sonority of this instrument is immediately apparent in the Prelude, which Anna Magdalena needed three different clefs to notate. It rolls grandly in a swinging 12/8, with richly resonant open strings, for 78 measures before exploding in a torrent of 16th notes. This subsides into four bars over open dominant and tonic pedals — a drum solo, as near as possible on strings — which leads into a series a crunched chords, and a wide-ranging coda. This is very physical, tactile music, but also music with extravagant aspirations.

Bach follows this very sensuous movement with a sumptuously elegant Allemande, much more song than dance. It does have imposing chords (some of them quadruple-stopped) that anchor its meter to a slow, solemn tread, but the space between is filled with one of Bach’s fine-spun, long-spanned, lavishly ornamented cantilenas. The Courante, with its obsessive fanfare motto, reminds us that in Baroque music D major was the key of trumpets and triumph. But like the Prelude, its energies overflow into waves of 16ths, like a chuckle becoming slightly hysterical laughter.

The most fully harmonized, multi-stopped movement in all six suites, the ensuing Sarabande continues the emphasis on sonority and physicality, with the clearest articulation of the traditional sarabande rhythm, its stress on the second beat. And here it is also expressed as a wonderfully poised, big-tune love song. But that is only the first eight measures. The second “half” of this binary dance is three times as long, and touched with pain as well as tenderness, intensified with sighing sequences.

The Gavottes are firmly rooted dance music, the first an odd mix of the stately and the lumpish in its heavy steps, the second a lighter contrast in the musette style with an echoed passage over a tonic drone. The athletic Gigue is equally earthy, reveling in off-kilter little rhythmic and harmonic jabs. Like the Prelude and Courante, it frequently bursts into exuberant swirls of excited 16ths.
Photo: Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript of the Cello Suites
© 2016, John Henken

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Artist Bios

Alisa Weilerstein

In performances marked by intensity, sensitivity, and a wholehearted immersion in each of the works she interprets, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein has long proven herself to be in possession of a distinctive musical voice. An exclusive recording artist for Decca Classics since 2010, she is the first cellist to be signed by the prestigious label in more than 30 years. In 2011 she was awarded a 2011 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship.

The 2015-16 season saw Ms. Weilerstein give world premiere performances of two major new concertos, both of them commissioned from leading composers and written especially for her. With the Chicago Symphony she gave the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s new concerto, titled Outscape. Similarly, with the composer on the podium, she premiered Matthias Pintscher’s concerto with the Danish National Orchestra. The cellist’s full concerto lineup also featured works of Shostakovich, Dutilleux, Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Barber, performing with such ensembles as the Czech Philharmonic; Bavarian Radio, London and National symphonies; Orchestre de Paris; and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Following the October 2014 release of their duo album debut on Decca with sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Ms. Weilerstein reunited with her longtime recital partner, pianist Inon Barnatan, for tours of the U.S. and of seven European capitals, including a return to London’s Wigmore Hall.

For her first album on the Decca label, Weilerstein recorded the Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin; the disc was named “Recording of the Year 2013” by BBC Music and earned her a cover story of its May 2014 issue. Her second Decca release, on which she plays Dvorák’s Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, topped the U.S. classical chart in summer 2014. Her third was a compilation of unaccompanied 20th-century cello music titled Solo.

Ms. Weilerstein discovered her love for the cello at just 2 ½, when her grandmother assembled a makeshift set of instruments from cereal boxes to entertain her while she was ill with chicken pox. Although immediately drawn to the Rice Krispies box cello, Weilerstein soon grew frustrated that it didn’t produce any sound. After persuading her parents to buy her a real cello at the age of four, she developed a natural affinity for the instrument and gave her first public performance six months later. Her website is alisaweilerstein.com.
Photo: Decca / Harald Hoffmann

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