Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Altstaedt plays Bach & Dutilleux

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Dutilleux 3 Strophes sur le nom de SACHER (1976) (1:36 on the broadcast link below)
J.S. Bach Cello Suite No 1 in G major BWV1007 (c1717-23) (12:54)
Cello Suite No 5 In C minor BWV1011 (c1717-23) (32:13)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 June 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Wigmore Hall is an ideal venue for solo cello, as Nicolas Altstaedt showed in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Yet before we heard his solo Bach he switched the order of the program slightly, placing the Dutilleux piece first. I must admit I had thought it would be even more effective in between the two Bach suites, but with playing of this insight and quality it soon seemed harsh to quibble.

Along with eleven other composers, Henri Dutilleux wrote a piece to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher. The brief was to construct a solo cello work using the intials of the conductor’s name (Eb – A – C – B – E – R). Dutilleux was in exalted company – Britten, Boulez, Lutoslawski and Ginastera were some of the other names involved – but he constructed 3 Stophes sur le nom de SACHER, three short but deeply expressive pieces.

Altstaedt played them passionately, immediately enjoying Dutilleux’s ways of exploiting the instrument’s colour through pizzicato, harmonics and a detuned ‘C’ string. The first piece (from 1:36 on the broadcast link) created a heady atmosphere but with plenty of nervous energy, before retreating to a distance. The second piece (4:45) brooded in the cello’s lower register before ascending to a lonely-sounding melody on high. The third (7:20) went at a terrific rate, scurrying figures down the cello punctuated by plucking, then reaching dizzy heights with harmonics that could almost have been from another planet, before swooping down and finishing with aplomb.

Moving to J.S. Bach, the mood eased for a wonderful performance of the Cello Suite no.1. Altstaedt played at a lower ‘baroque pitch’, with very little vibrato and with relatively little flamboyance, happy to let the music do the talking. With an airy Prelude (12:54) followed by a softly voiced Allemande (15:29) and light footed Courante (20:35), notable for its tasteful ornamentation, he was allowing Bach’s dance movements every chance to express their graceful side.

When it came to the slow Sarabande (22:56), he resisted the temptation to do what a lot of cellists do and overplay the double stopped chords, again letting the music speak in quiet, thoughtful tones.

He decided against using the Minuet repeat – a minor shame, as it is such good music! – but the light and shade with the trio section (25:48 and then 26:33) was exquisitely judged, before the Gigue (28:19) danced its way into the distance.

Altstaedt’s choice of suites was very much light and shade, for there is little in Bach with a darker colour than the Solo Cello Suite no.5. The Prelude (32:13) of this suite is austere in the extreme, and again a slightly reserved approach dynamically played to the music’s strengths. The Allemande (37:40) and Courante (43:32) were stern, each dance movement given the appropriate room but very darkly coloured, the rich chords beautifully judged.

The famous Sarabande (45:27), which some have compared to the falling of tears, was suspended in mid-air, time almost stopping as the feather light notes traced their bare outlines. After this a slight pick me up came in the shape of the first Bourrée (49:18), but the second was wispy and elusive (50:48). The concluding Gigue (52:35) gave us more closure but retained the serious air of the suite.

After these performances the lack of an encore was completely understandable, heightening the impact of the music we had heard. It was a very fine concert, and one would hope when he is ready Altstaedt will commit his striking Bach interpretations to disc.

Further reading and listening

You can watch Nicolas Altstaedt play the Dutilleux Strophes here:

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Altstaedt has not yet committed any of the Bach suites to record yet, but he has released a disc of the Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, with Jonathan Cohen. They can be heard on Spotify here:

The Bach Cello Suites are wide open to interpretation, not just from cellists but from the wider electronic music community. Peter Gregson has a foot in both camps, and last year’s addition to Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposed’ series was both imaginative and respectful:

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