Monday night’s concert at Wigmore Hall was truly a one-man show. And it was going to take quite the soloist to confront these technically challenging and unforgivably exposing solo cello works. While Britten’s Cello Suites were composed less than 50 years ago, they also look back to J.S. Bach’s originals. Thus, Pieter Wispelwey’s equal understanding of both modern and Baroque music (his repertoire spans from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter) puts him in a good position for a performance that looks forward as well as back.

Pieter Wispelwey © Benjamin Ealovega
Pieter Wispelwey
© Benjamin Ealovega
Britten’s suites are not exactly entirely easy for the audience, either. It can be difficult to maintain an audience’s concentration with a programme that is not only dedicated to a single composer, but also a single medium. Furthermore, these are not Britten’s most famous works, and it could have been a first hearing for a large part of the audience. Fortunately, Wispelwey is not a shy talker, and his short introductions before each suite were appreciated. Unfortunately, traffic problems meant that I missed the start of the concert, so I did not hear his first introductory talk. However, if it was anything like his next two, then I am very sorry to have missed it.

Similar talks before more familiar repertoire can be tedious, but here they were entirely fitting. Wispelwey would play short musical examples as he talked, which gave the audience something to listen out for when he performed the suites whole. Yet while it was clear that Wispelwey treats these works seriously, he was still able to remark on their more humorous aspects. Whilst explaining and demonstrating how the different voices interact during the Fugue in the Second Suite, he joked: “I don’t know if that’s enjoyable to listen to, but it’s great fun to play!” Wispelwey is a rare example of a charismatic soloist, who is just as at ease talking to his audience as he is playing to them. He uses this talent to his advantage, so his talks here acted as light relief in what otherwise might have been a heavy programme.

What was most revealing was what Wispelwey did not have to tell his audience: how much he loves this music. This was already evident, partly from his intimate knowledge of the music, but more importantly from his playing. Although the suites belong as much to Britten as they do to the cellist to whom they were dedicated, Mstislav Rostropovich, Wispelwey’s familiarity with them meant he could make them his own. On occasion, his playing sounded improvisatory, as though stemming from his own emotions. The technical demands of the suites frequently force the performer to contort themselves, and coupled with Wispelwey’s audible panting, this created a very physical performance. But instead of being distracting, it added greatly to the music’s expression. Since Britten’s suites were written for and dedicated to a cellist, its passions must arise from the cellist as from the music itself.

But Wispelwey was also capable of restraint. In his introduction to the Second Cello Suite, he explained that the fourth movement’s melody is marked non espressivo (“not expressive”). His response to this direction was to play with no vibrato, expertly controlled during the simultaneous pizzicato accompaniment. Yet the sound he produced was still captivating due to his extreme concentration on not playing expressively. The following Ciaccona: Largo is a set of variations completely opposed to the non-expressivity of the last movement. Wispelwey opened it with a playful, but also slightly macabre theme. He then continued to capture the many characters of the variations, including delicate upper registers, humorous staccato, singing soprano lines, and frantic virtuosic passages.

The Third Cello Suite may be the most moving. It was the last piece Rostropovich played to Britten before the composer died, and afterwards the cellist was unable to perform it again as he found it too emotional. The Barcarola: Lento fifth movement was one of the few lyrical moments in the evening’s programme, and Wispelwey did not shy away from the opportunity to show off the beautiful sound he can coax from his instrument. But it is the Passacaglia: Lento solenne ninth movement which, according to Wispelwey, is “where the piece starts”. Wispelwey’s playing forged it into an extremely intense movement. A highlight was during the dialogue between a pining melodic line and pizzicato interjections, where his exploitation of the silences between phrases was hugely tense. Yet it was the final held note that had the audience gripped. It was played with such levels of concentration that one of the longest silences followed. Wispelwey had complete control over his audience. They only applauded when he allowed them to.