Arts & Events

Alisa Weilerstein Takes On the Bach Suites for Solo Cello

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday May 03, 2019 - 03:13:00 PM

In program notes, Alisa Weilerstein paid tribute to Pablo Casals, who single-handedly resurrected from oblivion the Bach Cello Suites, and she also fondly recalled her own family’s roots in Berkeley. With these two things in mind, Alisa Weilerstein spoke of how honored and humbled she felt to be bringing Bach’s complete Cello Suites to this Berkeley audience in one evening’s concert. For those of us in attendance at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Wednesday, May 1, Alisa Weilerstein’s performance was a thing of beauty. 

The first thing one notices about Weilerstein’s playing is her gorgeous, burnished tone in the low register. Her Courante in Suite No. 1 in G Major featured sumptuous low notes galore, and it was exciting to hear such fare. The following Sarabande, an achingly slow movement, was also beautiful to behold. Two lively Minuets and a jaunty Gigue brought this opening Suite to a rousing close.  

Suite No. 2 in D minor is a horse of a different color. The opening Prelude is solemn and brooding, and this movement closes with a long-held note that, in Weilerstein’s nimble hands, seems to hang in the air forever. Then, in between a slow Allemande and a contemplative Sarabande, Weilerstein ably performed an agitated Courante full of leaps. In this Suite, as in No. 1, two lively Minuets and a rhythmic Gigue closed out the Suite in fine fettle. 

Generally, Weilerstein excels in the high-powered fast movements of these Suites for Solo Cello. Her fingering technique seems flawless, and her sense of rhythm and phrasing is impeccable. Slow movements – the Allemandes and Sarabandes – pose problems of interpretation for the cellists. How does one remain faithful to the slow, episodic melodic line while maintaining a unifying thread? How does one prevent the overall line from breaking down here and there? One example of this difficulty came in Suite No. 5 in C minor’s Allemande, where the music risked grinding to a halt at one point in which a pause occurred between one note and the next, almost losing the unifying thread. Of course, this Suite has the reputation of being the most searching yet austere of the six Suites for Solo Cello by Bach. The Allemande is plaintive, and the Sarabande is downright gloomy. Two Gavottes and a Gigue liven things up to close out this Suite.  

Some of my favorite moments occurred in Suites 3 and 4. The first of two Bourées in Suite 3 offers a lively, bouncy mood, and the closing Gigue of this Suite utilizes a bagpipe-like drone. In Suite No. 4, the Sarabande is exquisite, and it was beautifully rendered by Alisa Weilerstein.  

Of all six suites, my overall favorite is No. 6 in D Major. Here Bach lets out all the stops – including frequent double-stops – and Alisa Weilerstein rose to the challenge with a virtuoso performance. Unusually high notes abound in the opening Prelude. The Allemande is long and intensely lyrical, and it is also searching. The Courante features leaps galore, and the Sarabande is quite melodic. But it is the two Gavottes that always move me the most. The first is joyous, while the second imitates the sound of a musette, a French bagpipe. Both of these Gavottes were brilliantly performed by Alisa Weilerstein. The final Gigue brought this Suite – and this concert – to a rousing close. An appreciative audience gave Alisa Weilerstein a much-deserved standing ovation.