She has performed the complete cycle in various venues, amongst them London’s St John’s Smith Square in 2017 and Boston’s Jordan Hall in 2019. The studio recording was made in 2020. Following the release of the recording and in reaction to the worldwide lockdown due to Covid-19, she streamed all the 36 movements of J.S. Bach’s Solo Cello Suites from her home on social media, one per day, in the #36DaysOfBach project. In January of this year, the Cleveland Orchestra gave home to her latest (but certainly not the last) interpretation of the Bach Suites.

Alisa Weilerstein
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

To state that Alisa Weilerstein is intimately familiar with this glorious set of six masterworks would be an understatement. With her energetic and rhapsodic musical personality, one could safely assume that none of her performances would be a carbon copy of previous ones but rather snapshots in time. The Cleveland concert where the six Suites were broadcast in the order that they were published, one to six, was testimony to that.

At the beginning of the performance, Weilerstein, wearing a simple white top, black pants and high heels, sat centre-stage in the cavernous but empty Severance Hall. This is pertinent because in five of the six suites she wore different outfits and, smartly, the hues, focus and intensity of the lighting on stage also subtly changed with every suite. Every element of this concert was created to provide the right atmosphere and all visual aspects were carefully designed. Such attention to detail suggests a new concept for audiences in our pandemic-infected world. Until a year ago, concerts were always live events, even if occasionally offered in a broadcast. As a reaction to protective measures, last year the never-before used model of the streamed but live concert became a reality, in fact a necessity. In contrast, the Cleveland Bach concert took place a month ago, was recorded in sections (if for no other reason, than to allow for changing of outfits), perhaps in a concert-imitating short period of time, or perhaps over several days. It is essentially a video recording, published along other, streamed concerts of The Cleveland Orchestra.  

Alisa Weilerstein plays Bach in Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Weilerstein began the Prelude of the Suite in G major, BWV 1007, in full concentration and, fortunately, without the long, theatrical sigh that precedes her video clips of the same movement. She played all six Suites without music, which at a duration of close to three hours is quite a feat. The quality of the tone she produced was mesmerising; with a most unorthodox hold of the bow (index finger under the stick, little finger straight out and outside four fingers so close that they were almost touching each other) she produced powerful, yet smooth and velvety sounds at all dynamic levels. 

Her concept of performing Bach represented a hybrid approach incorporating elements of both a traditional and a more modern, historically informed style. Some movements, such as the Sarabande of the Suite in C minor, BWV 1011, were deeply emotional and almost completely devoid of vibrato, and other technical aspects of her playing also demonstrated her understanding of Baroque performance practice. 

Alisa Weilerstein plays Bach in Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The tempos she chose were mostly moderate and it was not until the Courante of the Suite in C major, BWV 1009, when the first genuinely fast character sizzled under her hands. Choice of tempo is a matter of individual taste and thus has to be respected; nonetheless, the French word Courante, which is the name of the third movement in every suite, means ‘running’ and is thus associated with a fast tempo. The rhythmic pulse – so essential in these stylised dance movements – was mostly inspirational and bouncy. On a few occasions though, rhythmic elements were treated too liberally, for example, in the final Gigue of the C minor suite, where the pulse seemed to transform into two beats in the bar (instead of three), underlined by an overly long upbeat. 

However, the most appealing aspect of her playing was the deep understanding of the various movements’ individual character and the ability to guide the audience through the maze of notes. By slightly lengthening harmonically important notes and thus emphasising them even when not written in succession, Weilerstein literally ‘interpreted’ series of notes into melodies and harmonies – a practice Pablo Casals experimented with and used successfully over a century ago, when first performing the suites as concert pieces. The musical intelligence of Weilerstein’s approach made every movement a joyful experience while exploring Bach’s musical universe.


This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream

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