Live from Amsterdam: Cello Biennale 2016

October 27, 2016, 3:07 PM · AMSTERDAM -- An unexpected turn of events kept this aficionado far from the hustle and bustle at Amsterdam’s ingenious multipurpose venue, Muziekgebouw aan ’t Ij during the excitement of the Amsterdam Cello Biennale’s opening days. The Cello Biënnale is an international cello festival, which is, for ten days, the ultimate meeting place and source of inspiration for cellists and other musicians from around the world.

Nevertheless, great news about great music travelled deep in the wilds of western China, (where I was stuck) thanks to web formational clips and daily photo posts to tempt the imagination.

Midway through the world’s greatest cellofest, I was treated to an evening concert featuring three famed cellists in a Brahms Soirée. True to the experimental nature of the Cello Biennale, the concert included lesser-known gems by Anton Webern and the prolific German-Dutch master Julius Röntgen. Starting the evening with a fanciful rendition of Röntgen’s contrapuntally satisfying sonata, Nicolas Altstaedt conveyed a fresh, transparency often missing in standard interpretations. Blessed with a larger-than-life stage personality, Altstaedt knows how to convince the public of the veracity of his interpretations. The confidence with which he conveyed three Webern selections, the Sonate voor cello and piano, Zwei Stücke and Drie kleine Stücke carried the fragile atonality to new heights. He stretched notes into silence proving to the listener that concise forms create their own eloquence. José Gallardo accompanied with guts and panache.

In contrast, Pieter Wispelwey seemed out of synch with pianist Paolo Giacometti in a lightweight, precious rendition of Brahms opus 120 Sonata. His hallmark polished sound was ever-present yet in place of appassionato long lines, Wispelwey opted for precious, overphrased subdivisions that trivialized the contrasting themes in the first two movements. A plethora of intonation slips and an overreliance on great gesture in place of focused playing made for a questionable interpretation all-round. Fortunately, Daniel Müller-Schott ably supported by José Gallardo gave a solid, well-crafted performance of Brahms’ Sonata opus 99 to close the concert. No heart-on-your-sleeve Brahms, but nonetheless satisfying in its emphasis on musical dialogue and harmonic suspense.

Betwixt and between the plethora of concert offerings ranging from Bach & Breakfast to late night extravaganzas featuring the likes of 2Cellos and, there are master classes given simultaneously in two locations, special children’s events and exhibits by cello makers, bow makers who invite all to question, test and learn. If pinned to the wall to mention just one distinguishing feature of the Biennale, I would be tempted to opt for its multiple offerings: over and beyond the concert hall, it’s the buzz in the hall, the creation of a meeting place for musicians, musical experts and first-timers to get into the cello groove.

Festival fathers Maarten Mostert and Johan Dorrestein possess the good sense to know when to innovate and when to remain true to the glories of the past six biennales. A tried and true feel-good early morning ritual at the Biennale is the daily presentation of Bach & Breakfast featuring festival stars. The morning crew is treated to croissants and coffee served by some of the people who masterminded the event. No hierarchy here, but a true welcome to the Netherlands in the spirit of four-stringed friendship. On a misty Thursday morning, Alisa Weilerstein transported a hushed audience into her blissful Bach cosmos with a rendition of the Cello Suite in d that combined powerful intellect with technical ease. Stay tuned for more!

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