Alisa Weilerstein, cello: Complete Bach Cello Suites

NEC's Jordan Hall

“It’s like Transcendental Meditation, almost, this incredible arc,” said Alisa Weilerstein to the New York Times about performing Bach’s six unaccompanied cello suites. One of the leading talents of her generation returns for her fourth Celebrity Series appearance playing arguably the pinnacle of the cello lexicon: a must-hear concert for music lovers!

This performance is not eligible for group discounts.


Johann Sebastian Bach Cello Suites Nos. 1-6

View program notes.

Runtime: Approximately 3 hours with a pause between Suites 2 & 3 (10 minutes: please remain at/near your seat) and a 20-minute intermission between Suites 4 & 5.

Concessions will be available during the 20-minute intermission. Click here for the menu.

Prices, seating sections, and programs are subject to change.

“By the end of the Sixth, she seemed a different person than the one who began the journey, other than the fact that she never lost her poise. Her command of the cello, of its sound and of Bach, was consummate.”

Mark Swed Los Angeles Times

“[Weilerstein] is showing the world that hers is a talent that only comes along once in a very long while.”

The Daily Telegraph
Media Partner


Notes on the program

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Six Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012 (c. 1720)

Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Cöthen from 1717 to 1723. Working in a secular position for a musically inclined patron, Bach concentrated more on instrumental music than at any other point in his career, and he produced such landmark works as the Brandenburg concertos, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach probably composed his Six Cello Suites in Cöthen as well, likely before the solo violin set from 1720. Bach’s own manuscript has been lost, so the few reliable sources for the suites are surviving copies made during Bach’s life, including one in the hand of his second wife, Anna Magdalena.

Most of Bach’s pieces fell out of favor for some period after his lifetime, but the cello suites suffered a particularly dark hibernation through much of the 19th century. One early champion was Friedrich Grützmacher, a German cellist, composer and editor, who created a performing edition of the suites in the 1860s, liberally elaborating Bach’s material and even transposing music to different keys. A dog-eared copy of that Leipzig edition found its way to a second-hand music shop in Barcelona, where the 13-year-old Pablo Casals discovered it in 1890. Casals worked on the suites privately for years, and he eventually introduced them into his concert repertoire. His recordings of all six suites finally brought Bach’s solo cello music into the limelight after 200 years of neglect.

Suite no. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007

Each suite begins with a Prelude, and none is more recognizable than the noble opening to the First Suite in G Major, with its broken chords that maximize the resonance of the cello’s open strings. The suites also share a consistent sequence of dances, using styles popularized in France in the late seventeenth century. (King Louis XIV was an avid dancer, and his court composers established the template for the instrumental dance suite.) The Allemande, so named for its adaptation of an older German style, tends to be even and flowing, as in the First Suite’s example, although the style encompasses a range of tempos. The Courante, which translates as “running,” is always quite spry in its three-beat pulse. The Sarabande, by contrast, is a slow and stately dance, imported to France by way of Spain (and Spanish-American colonies before that). The penultimate dance style is the only flexible detail in Bach’s otherwise consistent scheme for the suites, but still the selections always appear in the same da capo format, meaning that there are two related dances in the same style, with the first bookending the second. The G-major suite uses a pair of Minuets, that smooth and elegant style with three moderate beats per measure. The suites all conclude with a traditional Gigue, a lively and barreling dance with a triplet pulse that the French adapted from the jigs of the British Isles. Although the nature of a suite is to lump together a collection of disparate dances, Bach’s approach creates true cohesion and integrity within each work. In this case, the telltale triad from the Prelude’s first three notes—G, D and B—appears in some form or another within the first few measures of each subsequent movement.

Suite no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008

The home key of D minor sets the Second Suite on a wholly different emotional terrain than the bright and joyous First Suite. Besides the darker harmonies of the minor key, the textures are also more bare; instead of the many rich chords heard before (played simultaneously or implied through patterns of single notes), the D-minor Prelude is mostly a solitary affair of single lines probing the arpeggios and scales of its native harmony, until it concludes with five solemn chords. This suite’s Sarabande is particularly grave and arresting, and even the Minuet that follows has a lament-like quality, driven by the steady descents of its well-defined bass line.

Suite no. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009

The Third Suite’s key setting of C major enhances the impact of the cello’s lowest note, the open C-string. The Prelude begins with a scale and arpeggio that drops through two octaves of C major to land on that rich low C; at the end, four-note chords culminate in one last voicing of C major that spans the same robust range. Instead of the Minuets heard in the previous suites, the Third Suite uses a pair of light-stepping Bourrées, the first in C major and the second in C minor (followed, as per the usual da capo scheme, with a repeat of the first). The closing Gigue also borrows some of its tones from C minor, creating some exciting harmonic clashes, but ultimately it resolves back to the home key, ending with that same rich spread of four notes to spell out C major.

Suite no. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 1010

The Prelude of the Fourth Suite is another prime example of Bach’s ability to create the sensation of multiple voices even though only one note sounds at a time; the leaps through different ranges and the grouping of certain phrases makes it sound like two or more musicians are conversing. This elaborate Prelude also interrupts itself for quicker threads of linear writing that have the quality of improvised cadenzas. Flowing scale segments and wide leaps combine again in both the Allemande and the Courante, and the first Bourrée makes a game out of its own pattern of slurs and jumps.

Suite no. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011

The Fifth Suite calls for a distinctive tuning, with the high A-string lowered one step to G. Modern cellists sometimes maintain a standard tuning, but either way Bach’s plan influences the shapes of the chords and melodies. Following a typical French style, the first part of the Prelude uses dotted rhythms (i.e. alternations of long and short notes), and the same pattern appears in the unusually dense Allemande. The Prelude is also notable for the fugue that makes up its second half, another French convention that appears nowhere else in the Cello Suites. The Sarabande is a deeply haunting marvel of understatement: The two sections comprise just eight and twelve measures respectively, only one note sounds at a time throughout, and the rhythms never deviate from eighth- and quarter-notes. 

Suite no. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012

The instrument that Bach had in mind when he composed the Sixth Cello Suite had five strings instead of the usual four, extending its range higher into the treble register. This suite’s Prelude is very specific in its idiomatic use of open strings, exploiting the tones of D and A that are central to the D-major tonality. The Prelude also uses alternations of forte and piano dynamics to create echo effects, further enhancing the keen sense of instrumental color. The ornate, songlike Allemande is an especially expressive approach to the form, and the tandem Gavottes (occupying the same penultimate spot as the earlier Minuets and Bourrées) bring some of the heartiest and most beloved music from any of the suites.

 © 2019 Aaron Grad


Concessions Available

Visit our will call table near the Beethoven Statue to purchase concessions. Seating will be available in the Keller room and Room 124.

Dessert Bars: $3.00
Hummus cups: $4.00
½ sandwich: $4.00
Cheese plate: $5.00
Freshly Baked Cupcakes: $3.00
Freshly Baked Cookie: $1.50
Assorted Candy: $2.00
Assorted Chips: $2.00
Assorted Nuts: $2.00
Kind bars: $3.00
Bottled Soda: $2.00
Bottled Water: $2.50
Sparkling Water: $3.00
Starbucks Freshly Brewed Coffee: $2.50
Tazo Tea: $2.50

Please note: water only is permitted in the historic Jordan Hall