Alisa Weilerstein's New Recording Earns Definitive Place in Bach Suites Canon

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein joins me to discuss her latest album, Pablo Casals, her #36DaysOfBach, gravitating towards the sixth suite and more.

Alisa Weilerstein's New Recording Earns Definitive Place in Bach Suites Canon

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein joins me to discuss her latest album, Pablo Casals, her #36DaysOfBach, gravitating towards the sixth suite and more.

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein joins me to discuss her latest album, Pablo Casals, her #36DaysOfBach, gravitating towards the sixth suite and more.


The Bach Suites are a lifelong musical journey and interpretations of them change over time for many performers. So how did Weilerstein know that it was the right time to record them? While she could go back and forth for ages finding excuses not to record them, she made the decision a year and a half ago to jump in with both feet and do it. “I wasn’t even fully committed to releasing them, at that point in April of 2019, if I wasn't happy with them,” says Weilerstein. “I set down the recording dates and thought, okay I’m just going to go for it.”


By the time that she booked the recording dates, she had performed the entirety of the Bach Suites fifteen times and would be performing them several more times before recording. “I felt that I was in a good place with them and had internalized them up to a certain point,” says Weilerstein. “I know that my interpretation is going to change, it’s always going to be a living thing, and I want to document this moment in time and how I’m thinking about them. I’m proud of the recording. But I’m sure that every performance of the Suites will be different, it will evolve and I’d like to record them again in 10-15 years. ”


To study the Bach Suites and create her own interpretation of them, Weilerstein listened to a lot of different recordings from a wide range of interpreters - from historically informed recordings to Pablo Casals. “The Casals recording is wonderful, but not at all stylistic and not necessarily respectful of the times that the Suites were written in,” says Weilersein. “At the same time, I think the Casals recordings are actually my favorites of the Bach Suites that exist today. I always find myself returning to them when I’m looking for answers from the past.”

Pablo Casals Interview and Performance

Pablo Casals (1876-1973) is an idol to many cellists for good reason - he rediscovered the Bach Suites and made them famous. He was the first known to perform the Bach Suites in public, he did so in his 20s. His Bach recordings, the first recording of the Bach Suites, are a staple when studying the Suites; they’re irresistibly free and human. The recordings, which were made between 1927-1939, have an intimacy to them and lack the glossy finish that many recordings made in the 21st century have. This creates a different listening experience, you are aware that you’re listening to a recording; you hear some static. The awareness that what you’re listening to is a recording, it’s gone, calls attention to the beauty and ephemeral nature of music. On Bach, Casals said, “The music is never the same for me, never. Each day is something new, fantastic, unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle!” Casals’ Bach interpretations were a living thing.


There are two similarities between the Casals and Weilerstein recordings: a physical closeness in the actual recording and rhythmic freedom while maintaining the integrity of structure. In the Casals, you can hear the string crossings, the fingers tapping on the fingerboard, all of the little intimate sounds. While this isn’t nearly as prominent in the Weilerstein recording, one standout feature of hers is her audible breathing throughout. While this may seem minor, it’s a significant part of the recording as it creates a closeness and brings awareness that we are listening to a recording. To clarify, if you went to hear Weilerstein perform the Suites at Carnegie Hall, you would be too far away to hear her breath. Recordings are at their most special when they offer an enhanced listening experience in some way, and the Weilerstein recording does. One danger with recording can be erasure of the performer’s body, we don’t see them and so there can be a lack of awareness that this music is being created by a person using their body to play an instrument. By being reminded by her breath throughout, we can’t disassociate the body from the music.


Playing with freedom while maintaining the integrity of structure is a challenge when performing any music, and especially with Bach. “In my own practice I use the metronome,” says Weilerstein. “You might be surprised to know that because I’m quite free. I’m still trying to learn the art of playing freely with a metronome. That’s how you have the exercise of maintaining freedom within a strict form. You might think of it as a strict form like a sonnet, you have 14 lines but within it you can write whatever you want.” Throughout the album, Weilerstein spins long overarching lines with a warm and rich tone. The sound continues past the end of each note with an apparent awareness of the importance of the space in between to create eloquent and meaningful musical phrases.


Another difference between Weilerstein’s live performances of the Bach Suites and her recording is the order in which they are presented. When performing them live, Weilerstein performs the Suites in chronological order. Due to the limit of CD timings, it wasn’t possible to have the recording go in chronological order as the first three Suites are much shorter than the last three. “There was a practical consideration that forced an artistic decision,” says Weilerstein. “It presented quite the conundrum towards the end of the recording process, I didn’t realize that it was going to be an issue until the final stages of the editing.” She ended up ordering the Suites in the following order: first, third, sixth (first disc), second, fourth, fifth (second disc).

Weilerstein wanted for the first thing that listeners hear to be the Prelude from the first Suite. “It’s familiar, there’s such a child-like purity to it,” says Weilerstein. “From there to the regal quality of the third and the life affirming and nostalgic quality of the sixth.” The second disc delves into the darker Suites. “I separated the extremely dark second and fifth Suites with the very stately and elegant fourth. I wouldn’t have wanted to put the second and fifth Suites next to each other, the fourth breaks the tragic characters of each.”


Weilerstein learned the fourth Bach Suite last, but its Prelude is her favorite of the Preludes in the Suites. Most musicians gravitate towards a particular Suite and have their favorite movements, and these preferences can change depending on life circumstances. “I’m gravitating towards the sixth Suite in my own personal practice during these surreal times and am shying away from the fifth,” says Weilerstein. “I’m not finding it therapeutic in any way to play the fifth at the moment even though in normal times I think it’s my favorite. It’s very personal, a gut reaction really.”


Following the release of her album during these surreal times, Weilerstein recorded 36 days of Bach from her home and shared the daily videos on her social media accounts. As she stated above, Bach is personal. Weilerstein recorded the videos on her iPad, giving fans the opportunity to hear a more raw version of her Bach interpretations than the recording, as the videos didn’t undergo an editing process. She went through recording one movement of the Suites per day over the 36 days, experiencing the Suites in the same way that the online audience would. “In the recording process, you do a thousand takes just to get something exactly right. Then here I was in my bedroom just recording with my iPad thinking that all I want to do is just throw something out there,” says Weilerstein. “I really just had this very strong primal urge to communicate. It was quite an emotional thing for me. I was very happy to see how it was received, but it was also something very important for me to do. Even personally, it was my moment of zen throughout the day to do it; a kind of ritual.” The #36DaysOfBach recalls Casals morning ritual of playing one of the Suites from memory every morning. Many other famed musicians have been known to perform Bach every morning, including Igor Stravinsky, Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt, Christopher Hogwood, and Yeesun Kim.


In normal life, Weilerstein and artists of her caliber are constantly performing and traveling. When there isn’t a live paying audience, the choice of what to play everyday becomes more personal. At this point, Weilerstein is trying to find the silver linings in the stay-at-home orders. “Before we were all grieving, in a way, and many of us have lost loved ones. I feel grateful that my family is here and we’re enjoying being with each other,” says Weilerstein. “Right now I’m piling up a list of new concerti which I really want to learn and to play, which I so far haven't had time to do. So that’s actually kind of exciting. It’s a pretty wide variety of stuff. The cello repertoire is smaller than the violin repertoire, but you wouldn’t know it by the list that I’ve written. I think it’s time for everybody to really assess what’s important and what you want to be doing.”


Normally, Weilerstein prepares music based on her next performance. Without an immediate performance on the horizon, Weilerstein is playing what she feels like depending on the day. “I’ve always been happiest when I’m wearing lots of different hats. I’ve been wearing my Bach hat now for a while now. I still like having a variety of things,” says Weilerstein. “I’ve been doing all of this new music but I also want to revisit the Britten Suites and go through some Romantic concerti. I am going to go through the Dvorak concerto tomorrow, just because I miss it.”


This time has forced us to reflect on what’s important and how we experience music. Perhaps this notion of ritual, which Weilerstein touched on regarding her 36 days of Bach, can be brought into the way we perform and experience music after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. Weilerstein asks, “when we do come out of this, and we will, how are we going to communicate with each other? I hope very much that we are going to be compassionate, connected, and more in touch with what’s really important in life.”


Winner of the 2011 MacArthur “genius grant”, cellist Alisa Weilerstain has been hailed by the New York Times as “technically flawless and deeply expressive”. Weilerstein’s 19-20 concert highlights included Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with Tokyo’s NHK Symphony, Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra with Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, Schumann Cello Concerto with the Houston Symphony, Barber Cello Concerto with the Detroit Symphony, Strauss’ Don Quixote and Bloch’s Scholmo with the San Diego Symphony, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, both at the Barbican in London and the Philharmonie in Paris.


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