Photo: painting by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) of the Gore Family (1775).
I began answering “What makes a baroque cellist?” in a blog posted last year. Since that time, some memories of my not-so-distant youth have been prominent among the many thoughts that are conjured by the question. I first encountered what we now call historically-informed performance practice when I was about 14. I had only been playing the cello for a couple of years, but my first teacher gave me tapes (yes, tapes) of cello concerti by Vivaldi and Boccherini, performed on standard instruments, very early during my time with her. I found that I felt an immediate kinship and attraction to music of the 18th century. Two years later, the film Tous les matins du monde premiered. I had yet to see viola da gamba or a lute, and the movie provided a visual introduction to these and other exotic instruments, as well as an aural one to the music of several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers whom I quickly came to love. More than anything, I found the silvery, dramatic, and soulful sound emanating from the soundtrack to be intoxicating.
At around the same time, I distinctly remember walking into a Tower Records (kids, this was a store where one bought CDs) and hearing Anner Bylsma’s then-new recording of unaccompanied violin and flute music by J.S. Bach, which he played on a violoncello piccolo, in this case a four-stringed 7/8 cello that he tuned like a violin. The prelude to the third partita in E major for unaccompanied violin was about to conclude. When he arrived at the final e’, there it was, and it hit me like a brick: a sound completely devoid of vibrato, played loudly, with confidence and gusto. I had literally never heard such a sound before. It had never occurred to me that you could play without vibrato. It captivated and intrigued me, and I felt I had to find out everything I could about this music, this performer, his instrument, all in the hope of discovering how he came to play that note in that manner.
That film and that recording piqued my interest in a field that I now spend a good deal of time participating in. They did not, as you may suspect, serve to form my opinion about the use of vibrato in early (or later) music, though I certainly have one. But they pushed me to buy more and more recordings, read the liner notes and search for information beyond them, attend concerts and masterclasses, and form early opinions, which served to infuriate some or my teachers with my youthful arrogance where “authenticity” was concerned. They made me behave like a boy in love, because I was one.
It was somewhat apt that it was Bylsma’s recording—which, by the way, should be required listening, it’s wonderful—that so ensnared my imagination. Ten years later I was able to spend a magical year studying with him in Amsterdam, and until then I satisfied my interest in him mostly by listening to his recordings and reading about him, as well as studying his witty and erudite liner notes. Thinking back on the time when I first heard his recording, I’m not surprised at how inflexibly black-and-white I was, and how much I wanted to know “the” right way to do things, or how much I believed musicians were of one stripe or another, never both. As karma would have it, this is one of the attitudes that I sometimes encounter when asked to play a standard gig, but not before the person doing the asking ascertains that I “also play modern cello.” This is often met with surprise on his or her side, and almost always with incredulity on mine. And I remember how shocked I was when I learned, while reading one of these liner notes, that Bylsma continued to perform often rather thorny contemporary music, as well as 19th century music, always on gut strings but with an endpin and his Peccatte (which he used for his “baroque” recording of the Bach Suites, his second). Furthermore, I learned that many of his colleagues, some of the most eminent personages of the early music movement, also enjoyed a career beyond period performance, and more often than not distinguished themselves in the performance of 20th century music.
But, how could this be? I wondered. It completely tore apart at the boundaries I believed existed, and that I thought would guide me on my efforts at a career. Of course, now that I’m not a teenager anymore, at a time when I embrace the gray rather than the black-and-white, I know the answer to that question. But beyond the well-roundedness that helped Bylsma and others excel at all music, including 20th century works, lies a commonality between his and others’ identities when performing early and very modern music. That link is a love of language. The topic of next week’s continuation of this post will be how this love translates to one’s being a “baroque” cellist.