Back we go to Bach. Musicians everywhere seem to be turning to his music as the soundtrack of despair and hope, for both private solace and public streams.
One such artist is the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whose #36DaysOfBach project has her streaming a daily live performance on social media of one movement of the six cello suites — often following the music by chatting with those tuning in. And two weeks ago, Pentatone released Ms. Weilerstein’s richly emotive studio recording of the suites, made in Berlin last year.
Listen to the Fourth Suite’s Prelude, from the studio …
How does a polished album compare to a one-take stream? Can the pressures of a pandemic change the very sound a musician makes, or help her see a beloved piece in a new way? Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ms. Weilerstein, 38, who lives in San Diego.
We talked about the Bach suites in an interview almost exactly three years ago, and back then recording them was not on your mind. Why did you decide to?
That was the first season that I was doing all six suites in one go in concert, so I was living with them in a very different way, and thinking about them in a very different way. Having them flow into one another, chronologically, gave me a better perspective on them. I thought I would only record them when I was very old, and hopefully a bit wiser than I am now. Then I thought, I’m at an interesting point of my life — I have a young child — so I wanted to document this moment.
You’re far from the only the artist turning to Bach at the moment. Why is he still such a touchstone?
I think each person really listens to it with a personal take on it. I suppose that can be applied to any music, but there’s something about Bach which is so timeless, and so sublime, and so human, that it’s universally touching.
There are other composers, sometimes, who I am much more in the mood to hear, and he’s certainly not the only composer who can give solace, but there’s something else about his music, which can really reach into a very direct place, into a much calmer space of mind — not to say that it’s escapist, although it has that element, but it can make one think very deeply, and very clearly.
The Fifth Suite Prelude, two ways.
So how has being cooped up at home changed your understanding of this music?
One of the things that was stopping me from recording the Bach was that I worshiped this music so much, and wanted to do so well by it — but, at the same time, I’m going to be studying this music all my life and I’m never going to be able to do justice to it. That feeling never leaves anybody, but it has retreated.
Right now all I really want to do is give. I know it sounds really cheesy, but that’s honestly how it feels to be doing it. I just want to have a kind of outpouring of music, of thoughts, and everything else. That forces me to be completely direct with it.
What does that sound like in the pandemic recordings, compared to the studio one?
Certain dynamic choices have happened spontaneously. Some tempos are different; the sarabandes might be slightly slower now than they were. Everyone is having a different relationship with time now: The world has basically stopped, and we are forced to reassess what’s important and how we experience how we are perceiving literally everything. So how can it not extend to music making?
You picked a few examples of where the difference between your studio recordings and your pandemic videos might be audible, one of which is the Prelude to the Suite No. 4.
Again, it’s about timing and dynamics, a different emphasis. It’s funny, I used to always wait for the really dramatic second half, because the first half of the movement floats around E flat major, gives different permutations of it. But it’s a different appreciation of it now. I am really relaxing into it. I had always thought of this prelude as a very regal, very intense movement, which it is, but there is another element — breathing differently, enjoying it more.
The Fifth Suite Sarabande, two ways.
The other two examples come from the Fifth Suite, the Prelude and the Sarabande. This is already such sad, painful music, cast in C minor, but the temptation must be to pour even more emotion into it.
You know, I thought about that, but in a way, it’s kind of the opposite. We’ve all had tragedy in our lives; I don’t know a single person who hasn’t. But to be living in a moment which is so uncertain, having this collective experience, you think of it less in a personal way, and more in a universal sense. So I think that made it less indulgent than before; of course I always try not to make it indulgent, but it happened more easily.
I think it’s especially true for the Sarabande. It’s this one line, from which it traces this indescribable sadness, the feeling of complete isolation. I think of so many friends of mine who are going through this completely alone. It does make one play this music differently, thinking of a universal burden, rather than applying one’s own emotion to it.