Book Review: Cellist Miranda Wilson Explores Her Longtime Journey with Bach’s Cello Suites in ‘The Well-Tempered Cello’

Cellist Miranda Wilson’s book The Well-Tempered Cello is a flowing narrative of her life with Bach’s six Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012.

By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine

Miranda Wilson’s flowing narrative of her life with Bach’s six Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012, focuses on her preparations for a performance of the complete cycle in one evening from memory. As a professor at the University of Idaho, she had the resources to take adventures all cellists dream about—exploring the best instruments, editions, and recordings; absorbing the latest musicological developments; and discussing the purely cellistic technical issues with great practitioners—all in an effort to resolve for herself how to play the music.

The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites book

The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites
by Miranda Wilson
Fairhaven Press, $18.95 (paperback); $6.95 (Kindle)

Wilson has been continuously engaged with the suites since meeting them as a girl in New Zealand in a most Dickensian setting: “My teacher, Judy Hyatt, is a cellist in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra,” Wilson writes, “and she lives in a great ghostly Victorian house in the oldest part of Khandallah.” Her identification with the music is such that she gives each suite a title: “The Prince’s Ballroom” and “The Night of Sorrow” for the first two. She once spent an entire day going through 176 recordings of the fifth cello suite to discover that only 29 cellists played “the bizarre chord” in bar 25 of the Allemande in the fifth suite as written in the Anna Magdalena Bach facsimile and Bach’s own version for lute.


Advertisement


Wilson’s influencers have included Anner Bylsma, Jordi Savall, Pieter Wispelwey, and Dimitry Markevich. She has a “pet peeve,” however, about Pablo Casals being so widely acknowledged to have rediscovered the suites and also suggests, “Even if he got his start using the Grützmacher edition, Casals abandoned many of the performance practices in it that had come down directly from Bach’s time.” Her playing of movements from a Bach suite on her website is lyrical, honest, and consoling.


Advertisement


It was love at first sight when Wilson finally received her custom-made Luis and Clark five-string carbon-fiber cello. “I’ve barely put it down,” she writes. “I’m in love. Playing Bach’s multi-note chords the way he wrote them is bliss and makes the Sixth Suite feel like a completely different piece.”

Wilson bills herself as “cellist, writer,” and throughout her Bachian journey makes references to fellow New Zealander Katherine Mansfield (who could have been billed as “writer, cellist”), with whom she shares an interest in psychological perception. She searches for religious metaphors in musical lives and considers whether she should ask a class “to listen to the music of a composer whose worldview is unacceptable.”

At a time when we have become accustomed to knowing the six suites as one continual piece, Miranda Wilson brings us back to a time when the Sarabande from the D minor Suite was enough by itself, when played in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. In doing so, she will help listeners and players expand their own dimensions of how this wonderful music should go.