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‘It Demands Everything of You’: Alisa Weilerstein on Bach

04.17.17
Alisa Weilerstein
New York Times

Think of a cellist performing all six of Bach’s solo cello suites in a single concert as akin to a mountaineer’s climbing Everest: In itself, it has become a regular thing, but the achievement, not to mention the courage it requires, still has a special status.

Alisa Weilerstein is new to the summit this season, and she brings her Bach to the 92nd Street Y on Saturday. Just after a premiere performance of a new Matthias Pintscher concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last month, she talked through a favorite page of the suites, choosing the second half of the Prelude to Suite No. 4 — a twisting, shape-shifting route from a cadenza back to the E flat of the prelude’s opening. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from the conversation.

For some violinists, pianists and cellists, Bach is their daily bread. Is he for you?

I’ve made a resolution to play at least a couple of movements of Bach each day. Since I started doing it very rigorously, which was actually relatively recently, it’s changed my playing. Every instrumental flaw you might have comes into a glaring light, and, of course, it demands everything of you emotionally, cerebrally, instrumentally. So if I play Bach daily, I listen to everything that way.

Why the urge to perform all six of the suites at once?

It’s like Transcendental Meditation, almost, this incredible arc. You start from No. 1, which is this flower bud of innocence, with deep purity, and then it just expands as you go through. I see them as a circle of life, in a way. The first one is childhood; second is adolescence. One can’t get specific without sounding trite, but let’s say the sixth is when you’ve had a very rich life and you reflect on what life has been to you. At the very end, I am emotionally exhausted, physically exhausted, and my brain is turned to mush — and it’s the most wonderful feeling, a cathartic feeling. I love it.

Why did you choose the second page of the Prelude to the Fourth as your favorite?

It’s the most groundbreaking. This is where he smashes the bust and breaks out into a completely new world. He experiments with chromaticism in a way that he hasn’t yet. It goes through modulation after modulation, and it gets more and more dark and dramatic, until it finally breaks out and comes straight back to E flat. And the second page is where the drama happens.

As so often with Bach, there’s no indication of how to play it, no phrasing.

The challenge of that movement is that instrumentally, you’re extended all the time. It’s hellish for the hand, if you’re not careful. You have these constant pedals. I want to sound like an organ, to have this sense of timelessness, this regal sense.

Yet there are harmonic shifts every other bar, with false ending after false ending.

I imagine a hormonal teenager, in a way, improvising at the piano. The rest of the suites aren’t like that at all; the rest of them are slightly more civilized, slightly more conservative. But this prelude for me opens the door.

What’s the hardest bit?

Actually coming back to E flat. Daniel Barenboim has a thing that I think about when I think about this: This, of course, is identical to the opening. But it has a past. It has a history. It’s gone through something. To reflect that emotionally and harmonically is quite difficult to do.

So do you consciously play it in a different way?

I’m not thinking, Well, I should time this differently, not in that sense. But it’s had experience. It’s lived. And that comes back to how I feel about them in general: It’s life experience. It’s ethereal, but it’s had such a fraught past.

Your score doesn’t have any markings on it. Is that true of all your scores? Or is Bach unique?

The newer the music, the more I mark it. I tend to mark things that are very complex and intricate, that might be very tricky with orchestra. With Bach, there are certain ideas that are fixed, but so many ideas are so fluid that I find if I write something in and keep it there, I find it inhibiting, even fingerings. With any music you have that to a degree, but with Bach more than anything. So I personally like going to a blank slate.

Read the rest of the review here