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Pieter Wispelwey


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The Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey, likes doing marathons - but not running marathons, cello ones! He plays all six of Bach's Cello Suites in one evening which takes more than three hours. All we can say is that we hope someone wraps him in a silver blanket afterwards!

Unusually, he plays both a baroque and modern cello which also means that he plays music from the baroque period to the modern day. For the sixth Bach cello suite, he also plays a violoncello piccolo which is a small cello (about the size of a three-quarter size cello) with five strings.

We spoke to Pieter on the phone from his home in Amsterdam where he had just returned from tours in Japan and Europe. He is energetic, warmly funny, serious (about the cello) and extremely enthusastic. And fortunately, he speaks perfect English . . .

How old were you when you started to play the cello?

I wanted to play the cello when I was two but I was made to wait until I was eight. In the meantime, I started the piano. My parents took me to see the lady who would be my teacher, Dicky Boeke, when I was six and she said, "Let's give it a few more years." She then taught me from the age of eight to seventeen.

How did you come to choose the cello?

My dad, who was an amateur violinist, regularly rehearsed with his string quartet in our home. They were amateur players but very intense and serious about what they were doing and I got very intense and serious about the biggest instrument which was also the loudest, the warmest and the best!

Did you always like practising?

I wanted to get better as soon as possible so it was a sort of sport - playful and with the challenge of doing tricky things.

We began very thoroughly. The first few weeks were just walking through the house waving the bow, making sure I could find the proper grip at any moment. After a year or two, I really started practising properly. My parents were wise enough to set a regular time: at first fifteen minutes, then after half a year, twenty minutes. After two years it became half an hour. Then forty-five minutes to an hour. By twelve or thriteen, one hour or ninety minutes, at fifteen two hours. It was a very helpful thing to set a time. I practised before breakfast which worked really well. I am trying to do the same for my son who plays the violin.

Do you own a violoncello piccolo?

Ha! It's one metre away from me! I just got it out of the safe and it's still alive! I will play the last Bach suite this weekend - it's much more beautiful on the violoncello piccolo. I'll be taking off tonight with three cellos in the car!

Is the violoncello piccolo a very rare instrument? Was it difficult to find one?

Fairly rare. This one was originally a four-string 7/8 size cello made in the 1700s and I had it converted.

Is the violoncello piccolo very different to play from the cello?

Well, five strings are, of course, different from four, and it has gut strings. But as a child I was playing gut strings anyway. That was part of my teacher's idealism. She thought gut strings more beautiful and artistic and an interesting challenge. With gut strings, the bowing technique needs to be very controlled and there are more colours to find. And once you can do that, you can try to find a big sound. If you can get a big sound on gut strings, you will be able to get an enormous sound on steel strings because you will have the technique.

What do you like most about playing the cello?

I like the grittiness and the glamour of the sound. I like the fact that it can roar and whisper. Also the sportiness. I don't mind sweating. I like the way I have to move my arm and the technical challenge. I like the long fingerboard - much longer than the violin's. I like the bottom strings a lot. Of course, as a soloist, you spend a lot of time on the top strings because with an orchestra that's where you can make yourself heard and most of the melodies are on the top strings. I find the fourth position on the A string and onward very, very appealing.

Which cellists have inspired you ?

The cellist in my father's string quartet. His name is Piet Kwant. He still comes to my concerts and I still think he's a great cellist.

The first record I was given as a present was Pablo Casals playing Beethoven's Cello Sonatas. I thought them very boring at the time because they're all scales but now, of course, I love them. As a young teenager, I heard Rostropovich in Amsterdam playing three concerts in one night. Now I prefer Yo-Yo Ma over those two. I really like him. And when I was fourteen or fifteen, I heard Anner Bylsma play Bach's Cello Suites in a church in Amsterdam. It was unforgettable. He was idolized by my teacher so, of course, I was very excited about hearing him. Three years later, he became my teacher.

Do you have any tips for practising?

I can't emphasize too much the importance of straight bowing. In the right hand, don't ever lean on the little finger and the thumb should be rounded.

The great trick of changing bow direction, on the upper half of the bow, is having a nice speed at the end of the down bow. You have to gradually (but subtly!) speed up towards the end of the bow, in addition to gradually applying more weight by leaning on your index finger. Always look forward to your up bow. This is the first secret there is!

Also, you can create your own exercises. When I was seventeen, I told myself I wanted to practise for eight hours. After six hours I was really exhausted and I started fiddling with my bow and making up my own exercises. For example, see whether you can jump over two octaves with your left hand, or two octaves and one note . . .  Try to keep some element of experiment and play in your practice. 

What do you think is the most important quality in a soloist?

Reaching out to the listener. In general, being a soloist doesn't go without some sort of extrovert personality. And you shouldn't shy away from making things larger than life.

Do you enjoy being on tour?

I love it! I love hotel rooms. I must like loneliness a bit . . .

Do you have a message for little cellists?

Try the impossible once in a while!