Alisa Weilerstein
Saturday October 15, 2016 3:00pm

The Complete Bach Cello Suites

Alisa Weilerstein, cello


After first coming to Caramoor as an Evnin Rising Star in 1999, cellist Alisa Weilerstein has since become a longtime member of the Caramoor family from being married in the Sunken Garden to serving as our inaugural Artist-in-Residence in 2014. Now, in a new chapter of her career, Alisa Weilerstein brings her first ever public performance of the Complete Bach Cello Suites for unaccompanied cello to the home of Caramoor, the Music Room of the Rosen House.

“It is especially significant to me to play these suites for you in a place that I am proud to call not only my musical home, but also one of my favorite places on earth.”
– Alisa Weilerstein

Bach Cello Suites
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
– Intermission –
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012

Alisa Weilerstein Bio

Alisa Weilerstein, cello

“Alisa Weilerstein … is too big a talent to be pigeonholed.” – New York

“A young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition, … Weilerstein is a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” So stated the MacArthur Foundation when awarding Alisa Weilerstein a 2011 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, prompting the New York Times to respond: “Any fellowship that recognizes the vibrancy of an idealistic musician like Ms. Weilerstein … deserves a salute from everyone in classical music.” In performances marked by intensity, sensitivity, and a wholehearted immersion in each of the works she interprets, the American cellist has long proven herself to be in possession of a distinctive musical voice. An exclusive recording artist for Decca Classics since 2010, she is the first cellist to be signed by the prestigious label in more than 30 years.

Weilerstein releases her fifth album on Decca in September, playing Shostakovich’s two cello concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Pablo Heras-Casado, in performances recorded live last season. Her 2016-17 season also includes, for the first time in her career, performances of Bach’s complete suites for unaccompanied cello: at Caramoor, in Washington, DC, New York and in London. In January she embarks on a nine-city U.S. tour with longtime recital partner Inon Barnatan and clarinetist Anthony McGill, including a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center in Alice Tully Hall. The trio’s tour will include the world premiere of a piece written by Joseph Hallman specifically for this ensemble. She tours Europe with Barnatan later in the spring, with performances in Salzburg and a return to Wigmore Hall in London. Her busy international concert schedule this season features performances around the globe: she performs Britten’s Cello Symphony with the New World Symphony; Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, the Netherlands Philharmonic, and the National Symphony in both Washington, DC and Moscow; Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony; Schumann with the San Francisco Symphony, and at Carnegie Hall in the company of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with which she then tours the same program to Italy and Spain; Elgar with the Staatskapelle Weimar; Walton with Amsterdam’s Residentie Orkest; and Dvořák with the Minnesota Orchestra, Sydney Symphony, and the Tokyo Symphony on a three-stop tour of Japan, where she will also play four solo recitals. The cellist also performs Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… with Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, and gives the world premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s Cello Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the piece for her.

The 2015-16 season saw Weilerstein give the world premiere of another new concerto commissioned expressly for her from a major European composer, Pascal Dusapin’s Outscape, which she performed with the co-commissioning Chicago Symphony before giving its first European performances with the Stuttgart and Paris Opera Orchestras. Other concerto performances included Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante with the Czech Philharmonic; Elgar with the London Symphony; Schumann with the Orchestre de Paris; Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… with Hamburg’s NDR Symphony and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Hindemith with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Tchaikovsky with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Haydn with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; and Barber with the National Symphony in Washington, DC. Weilerstein made her Lucerne Festival Debut this past spring, playing the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. In the summer of 2016, she gave the BBC Proms premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s Reflections of Narcissus to rave reviews, with Pintscher himself conducting. Following the October release of their duo album debut on Decca with sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Weilerstein reunited with Inon Barnatan for tours of the U.S. and of seven European capitals, including a return to London’s Wigmore Hall.

For her first album on the Decca label, Weilerstein recorded the Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. The disc was named “Recording of the Year 2013” by BBC Music, which featured the cellist on the cover of its May 2014 issue. Her second Decca release, on which she plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, topped the U.S. classical chart, while her third, a compilation of unaccompanied 20th-century cello music titled Solo, was pronounced an “uncompromising and pertinent portrait of the cello repertoire of our time” (ResMusica, France). Solo’s centerpiece is the Kodály sonata, a signature work that Weilerstein revisits on the soundtrack of If I Stay, a 2014 feature film starring Chloë Grace Moretz in which the cellist makes a cameo appearance as herself.

Weilerstein has appeared with all the foremost orchestras of the United States and Europe, collaborating with conductors including Marin Alsop, Sir Andrew Davis, Gustavo Dudamel, Sir Mark Elder, Christoph Eschenbach, Alan Gilbert, Giancarlo Guerrero, Manfred Honeck, Marek Janowski, Neeme Järvi, Paavo Järvi, Jeffrey Kahane, Lorin Maazel, Cristian Măcelaru, Zubin Mehta, Ludovic Morlot, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Peter Oundjian, Matthias Pintscher, Donald Runnicles, Yuri Temirkanov, Michael Tilson Thomas, Jaap van Zweden, Osmo Vänskä, Simone Young and David Zinman. Her major career milestones include an emotionally tumultuous account of Elgar’s concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Oxford, England, for the orchestra’s 2010 European Concert, which was televised live to an audience of millions worldwide and subsequently released on DVD by EuroArts. She and Barenboim reunited in 2012-13 to play Elliott Carter’s concerto on a German tour with the Berlin Staatskapelle. In 2009, she was one of four artists invited by Michelle Obama to participate in a widely celebrated and high profile classical music event at the White House, featuring student workshops hosted by the First Lady, and performances in front of an audience that included President Obama and the First Family. A month later, Weilerstein toured Venezuela as soloist with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel. She has since made numerous return visits to teach and perform with the orchestra as part of its famed El Sistema music education program. Other highlights of recent seasons include her debut at the BBC Proms in 2010, and with England’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which she joined in 2013 for a 16-city U.S. tour.

Committed to expanding the cello repertoire, Weilerstein is an ardent champion of new music. She gave the New York premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s Reflections on Narcissus under the composer’s own direction during the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural 2014 Biennial, and has worked extensively with Osvaldo Golijov, who rewrote Azul for cello and orchestra (originally premiered by Yo-Yo Ma) for her New York premiere performance at the opening of the 2007 Mostly Mozart Festival. Weilerstein has since played the work with orchestras around the world, besides frequently programming the Argentinean composer’s Omaramor for solo cello. At the 2008 Caramoor festival, she gave the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violoncello and Piano with the composer at the keyboard, and the two have subsequently reprised the work at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the Kennedy Center, and for San Francisco Performances. Joseph Hallman, a 2014 Grammy Award nominee, has also written multiple works for Weilerstein, including a cello concerto that she premiered with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in 2008, and a trio that she premieres on tour with Barnatan and clarinetist Anthony McGill in the spring of 2017.

Weilerstein has appeared at major music festivals throughout the world, including Aspen, Bad Kissingen, Delft, Edinburgh, Jerusalem Chamber Music, La Jolla SummerFest, Mostly Mozart, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Tanglewood, and Verbier. In addition to her appearances as a soloist and recitalist, Weilerstein performs regularly as a chamber musician. She has been part of a core group of musicians at the Spoleto Festival USA for the past eight years and also performs with her parents, Donald and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, as the Weilerstein Trio, the trio-in-residence at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

The cellist is the winner of both Lincoln Center’s 2008 Martin E. Segal prize for exceptional achievement and the 2006 Leonard Bernstein Award. She received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2000 and was selected for two prestigious young artists programs in the 2000-01 season: the ECHO (European Concert Hall Organization) “Rising Stars” recital series and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society Two.

Born in 1982, Weilerstein discovered her love for the cello at just two and a half, when her grandmother assembled a makeshift set of instruments from cereal boxes to entertain her while she was ill with chicken pox. Although immediately drawn to the Rice Krispies box cello, Weilerstein soon grew frustrated that it didn’t produce any sound. After persuading her parents to buy her a real cello at the age of four, she developed a natural affinity for the instrument and gave her first public performance six months later. At 13, in October 1995, she played Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations for her Cleveland Orchestra debut, and in March 1997 she made her first Carnegie Hall appearance with the New York Youth Symphony. A graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied with Richard Weiss, the cellist also holds a degree in history from Columbia University, from which she graduated in May 2004. In November 2008, Weilerstein, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was nine, became a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

About the Music

In the year 1888, a twelve-year-old boy in the provinces of Catalonia discovered something sitting alone on a dusty shelf of an old music store: a tattered score of the Six Suites for Violoncello Solo by Johann Sebastian Bach.  He couldn’t believe what he had found, and immediately recognized it as an invaluable treasure.  He bought the score and took it home with him to practice.  It would be thirteen more years before he dared play the Suites in public.  This remarkable boy is one of my personal heroes; the legendary artist, musician, cellist, and above all, humanitarian, Pablo Casals.

We cellists owe an incalculable amount to Pablo Casals.  He is largely credited with modernizing cello technique, and was one of the few real pioneers who helped bring the cello into the twentieth century as a solo instrument.  But I personally think that one of his largest contributions to cellists, and to music lovers everywhere, was his discovery and timeless interpretations of the Bach Suites.  Growing up, I listened to his recordings of the Suites several times daily, and I lovingly return to them often.  Casals also impressed upon me the sacred nature of this incredible music, and I have always approached the Suites with a special reverence.

Therefore, the idea of performing the complete Bach Suites in one concert is something that has always thrilled and terrified me at the same time.  I can only say how very honored and humbled I am to be a vessel in which to bring this music to you here at Caramoor; music which perfectly marries the most profound emotions with impeccable intellect.  One could say I also grew up at Caramoor; I played my first concerts here as a “Rising Star” in the Music Room when I was seventeen years old.  Since then, I have performed chamber music, concertos with orchestra, as well as solo recitals at Caramoor nearly every year.  Most importantly, I married my husband in the magical Sunken Garden in August 2013.  To me, the Bach Suites for Solo Cello have always represented a “circle of life.”  It is especially significant to me to play these suites for you in a place that I am proud to call not only my musical home, but also one of my favorite places on earth.

– Alisa Weilerstein


The Six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are works shrouded in mystery and mythology. Among the most popular works ever written for any solo instrument, they are a fixture of the musical subconscious, particularly the ascending arpeggios of the Prelude that opens Suite No. 1. They are the six peaks that every aspiring concert cellist must climb in their bid to join the starry firmament.

The manuscript score has either been destroyed or lost. What survived was a manuscript of the work by Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena, labeled “Suites á Violoncello Solo senza Basso.” (This indicated that the solo works did not have a bass accompaniment or some kind of continuo.) For years, they were considered to be important but minor teaching works, evidence of Bach’s mastery on yet another instrument. In 2006, Australian Bach scholar Martin Jarvis speculated openly that the Six Cello Suites might even have been composed by Anna Magdalena, although this point of view has generally been met with disbelief by other academics.

The exact date of their composition is unknown, although Bach scholars date the Six Cello Suites as being written somewhere between 1717 and 1723, when Bach was kapellmeister for Prince Leopold, who ruled Anhalt-Köthen from the city of Köthen. This period saw the creation of much of Bach’s instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concertos and the six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Even the great three-volume biography of Bach by the German scholar Philipp Spitta treats these important works as a kind of pendant to the Violin Sonatas, minor teaching works that evidenced Bach’s mastery of yet another instrument.

After his death in 1750, Bach was revered as a master of German music, and famed far and wide as a virtuoso of the keyboard. Both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier were regarded as essential teaching tools to help young would-be musicians master the harpsichord and that newfangled Italian invention, the piano. His choral music found its audience in 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn led a legendary (and heavily cut) performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin, credited as the moment that the Bach revival began in earnest.

Move up to a century ago. Like the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Cello Suites were known to students of their instrument, but no serious cellist would consider playing them as a concert. These works were meant for private study and practice, designed to increase dexterity and touch with the hand and the bow and learning how to produce the unique tenor singing voice of this essential instrument. The cello was a key player in the development of the Classical and Romantic orchestra, and was heard in chamber music for duo, trio, quartet and more. But there wasn’t much solo music you could play onstage.

It should be noted that Bach may not have intended these works for a cello played between the knees (da gamba) but for a smaller instrument played on the shoulder (da spalla.) Today, some cellists elect to play the works in that style, slinging the cello across their bodies like a guitar, fretting with the left hand and bowing upward. Others have had special “baroque” cellos built for a complete performance, or brought multiple instruments along to cope with the difficult tuning of the Suite No. 5 and the upper register of the Suite No. 6. Ms. Weilerstein will tune her A string down to G for the Suite No. 5 and will play a standard cello for the performance.

The renewal of interest in Bach’s Cello Suites started in the most surprising and unremarkable way. A young cellist, a twelve-year-old boy in Barcelona, Spain, was perusing sheet music in a bookshop, when he found a copy of the Bach Cello Suites. He persuaded his father to buy the music, a sensible purchase as the young man had just “graduated” from a three-quarter-size instrument to a new, full-sized cello. The year was 1906, and the boy was named Pablo Casals. (There is an interesting parallel here with the rebirth of the St. Matthew Passion, as the 14-year-old Mendelssohn received his first copy of the score as a birthday present.)

Thirteen years later, Casals finally felt comfortable enough with the Cello Suites to perform the works in front of an audience. He began to perform the pieces in solo recitals, concerts where he would play all six of these works in the course of an evening. Young listeners heard the great Casals play, and the reputation of both the artist and of the compositions grew exponentially. That growth accelerated further in 1936, when Casals agreed to record his edition of the Six Cello Suites for what was then the HMV label, now owned by Warner Brothers. He made the recordings over four years, working with engineers in London and Paris to capture each movement, a side at a time. The recordings have been reissued again and again, passing through the era of 78s, LPs, and compact discs, and are now available as downloadable files. They remain essential listening.

Each of the Suites follows a similar structure, with slight differences. Bach begins with a Prelude that establishes the mood of the piece, before following the baroque suite convention of a series of dances, each one in a different national character. The Allemande is German. The Courante is French and the slow, emotive Sarabande hails from Spain. There are also pairs of Galantaries, with two Minuets in Suite No. 1 and No. 2, two Bourrées in Suites 3 and 4, and two Gavottes in 5 and 6. All six suites end with a Gigue, a lively dance that originated in the British Isles as the jig. The different dance styles force the player to evoke different emotions, a further test of one’s ability with the instrument.

The first half of the concert begins with the Suite No. 3 in C Major. Its prelude starts with a repeated series of scales, as if the instrument is warming up before launching into a fierce flood of arpeggios. The Sarabande is particularly emotive, built around dark, mournful chords in the instrument’s lowest register. The concluding Gigue demands dexterity as the multiple voices of the cello sing to each other.

Suite No. 4 is written in the key of E flat, a challenge because of hand positionings and the wide, droning intervals of the first movement that give it the character of folk-song. The Allemande and Courante have a halting character, with numerous rests between the notes and the requirement of a strong sense of rhythm. The Sarabande fades in, swelling in a sad song for the instrument’s middle register.

No. 5 in C minor calls for scordatura (literally “mis-tuning”). The cellist tunes their high A string down to G, creating different tones and chord voicings in the instrument and lending the entire work a darker and more dramatic character. The Prelude is written as a French Overture, which leads into a heart-stopping fugue played as a single melodic line. The Sarabande of this Suite has a funerary character, and is one of Bach’s most emotional pieces.

The second half of the program starts with the Suite No. 2. This is in D minor, a more ruminative and thoughtful key. The opening of the Prelude is the slow unspooling of thought, with a single melodic line running like a continuous train of thought. Chords appear to accent the Allemande as the movement plunges again and again into the depths. Only the final Gigue has hints of any kind of optimism, as cellist and composer shine a light into the darkness.

The Prelude to Suite No. 1 in C Major opens the entire cycle and has, thanks to Hollywood and its use in commercials become a musical byword for serenity and deep thought. This rippling first movement yields to a series of more and more playful dances, culminating in a rustic and very fast final Gigue.

The great Mstislav Rostropovich once called the sixth and final Cello Suite in D Major a “symphony for solo cello.” While Bach’s son Johann Christian invented the symphony, this work definitely pushes the instrument in that direction. From the pulsing opening of the first Prelude this work rings with optimism. The sequence of Allemande-Courante-Sarabande serves as a kind of slow movements and the pair of courtly gavottes anticipate the dance movements of Haydn and Mozart. The cycle ends with an exuberant final Gigue, with all suggestion of darkness conquered and the cello’s voice lifted in joyous song.

– Program notes by Paul Pelkonen


Johann Sebastian Bach / (1685-1750) / Six suites for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007-1012

Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012

On the face of it, composing music without accompaniment for a solo instrument generally perceived as capable of playing only melodies would seem to be an exercise in futility. How can there possibly be any variety of texture? Any harmonic interest? It is an exercise that composers have cheerfully accepted as a challenge for centuries—and the results, in turn, become a challenge to performers.

Certain techniques have been developed in a kind of trompe-l’oreille, to “fool the ear” into hearing several musical lines, just as trompe‑l’oeil paintings fool the eye into thinking that a flat surface covered with oil paints has three dimensions and tactile reality. The most important of these techniques is the rapid alternation between high and low melodic registers, to suggest two different levels of melody going along together. Often the melodic lines are built of arpeggiations in such a way that the low note suggests a bass, the high note a melody line, and any middle notes the background harmony. That is about the only way to suggest multiple lines on, say, the flute, which has a large literature of unaccompanied music. But on the violin or cello it is also possible to sound more than one note at a time by the technique of multiple-stopping (playing two or more strings at once). Before Bach, this technique had already been developed for the violin by such composers as Biber and J. J. Walther, but Bach seems to have been the first to transfer it to the cello.

The solo cello works were apparently all composed fairly early in Bach’s Cöthen period (from 1717 to 1723). He made a fair copy of six works for unaccompanied violin by 1720, and the cello suites seem to be stylistically earlier, so that had probably already been composed, although they survive only in a manuscript copy made by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena at a later date.

The suite in Bach’s day was a collection of dances that normally included a standardized group of four (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue), though in practice Bach usually (as here) added a couple of others and usually also introduced the work as a whole with some sort of prelude. Bach evidently intended from the beginning to compose six works and then to drop the medium forever, just as he did with the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas. (For that matter, six is the number of the Brandenburg Concertos, the sonatas for violin and harpsichord, the English suites, and the French suites.) It was customary in Bach’s day to publish instrumental music in sets by the dozen or half-dozen. Even though he did not undertake to publish most of these works, he seems to have planned them from the outset as a complete “opus,” a full cycle of works of each type.

The cello suites each have the four “classical” movements of the dance suite introduced by a prelude. Moreover Bach inserts a pair of minuets into the suites Nos. 1 and 2, a pair of bourrées into Nos. 3 and 4, and a pair of gavottes into Nos. 5 and 6. In each case, these paired dances are played alternativement—that is, the first is the A section of an ABA pattern, the second is the B section, and then the first is repeated.

Despite this apparent overall plan, it seems likely that the last two suites originated separately from the other four. For one thing, they are longer and more difficult technically (though this could simply be an aspect of the progressive arrangement of the set). The fifth employs scordatura (a retuning of the instrument for special effects or technical possibilities); here the top string is tuned down from a to g. The sixth was actually written for a different kind of instrument, one with an extra string a fifth higher than the cello’s top a string. The instrument in question may have been the viola pomposa, which, according to the composer Franz Benda, Bach himself invented. But Bach did not have a viola pomposa until he moved to Leipzig, by which time he had already composed the sixth suite.

In any case, these six suites have long since become an essential part of every cellist’s repertory. At various stages in a musician’s career—or even simultaneously—they can be technical exercises, recital showpieces, or simply a repository of music for the most private and intimate communion between player and instrument.

– Steven Ledbetter