Interview by Tim Janof
After winning several international competitions early on (Wettbewerbserfolgen 1990 at the ARD, and the Leonard Rose International Competition in 1993), Alban Gerhardt has established himself as one of the world’s leading cellists. His career-launching debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has led to performances as soloist with such orchestras as the NDR Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich, and Frankfurt Radio Orchestras, Bamberg Symphony, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, and London Philharmonic Orchestras, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, National Symphony, Houston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Orchestre National de Belgique, St. Petersburger Philharmonikern, Shinsei Symphony Orchestra Tokyo and Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, as well as the chamber orchestras of Lausanne, Amsterdam, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Among the distinguished conductors with whom he has collaborated are Andrey Boreyko, Semyon Bychkov, Sir Colin Davis, Christoph Eschenbach, Paavo and Neeme Järvi, Marek Janowski, Carlos Kalmar, Alexander Lazarew, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Fabio Luisi, Sir Neville Mariner, Kurt Masur, Sakari Oramo, Heinrich Schiff, Vassily Sinaisky, Jeffrey Tate, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Osmo Vänskä.
In 2000/01 he had the honor of playing three times at the London “Prom” with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo. In the following season he gave his debuts with the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Yakov Kreizberg, the Baltimore Symphony under Sir Neville Mariner, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monaco, Lahti Symphony, Czech, Stuttgart and Halle Philharmonic (at the Große Festpielhaus Salzburg), and at the Festival Pablo Casals with the China Philharmonic under K. Penderecki. He has given recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, the Cheltenham Pump Room, Paris’ Theatre de la Ville, Eindhoven’s Philips Center, and New York’s Frick Collection.
The next two years will introduce Alban’s debut performances with the Nederland, Helsinki, and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, the Vancouver, Seattle (under G. Schwarz), Utah (with K. Lockhart), Oregon and Detroit, Philharmonia London, Trondheim Symphony und dem Berlin Symphony (with W. Weller), as well as two re-invitations with the Monaco Philharmonic (L. Foster and M. Janowski), his fifth time at the Tonkünstler Orchestra in the Musikverein Vienna, and a tour with Birmingham Symphony, including his debut at their Symphony Hall.
In collaboration with pianists such as Christoph Eschenbach, Markus Groh, Steven Osborne, Cecile Licad, Lars Vogt and Anne-Marie McDermott, he has been presented at distinguished venues as Lincoln Center ‘s Alice Tully Hall (for his US debut), the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and Phillips Collection, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Musée d’Orsay, Theatre Champs-Elysée and the Chatelet in Paris, Philharmonic Halls in Berlin and Cologne, Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Gerhardt is a frequent guest at major music festivals, such as both Spoleto Festivals (US and Italy), Newport, Vancouver, New Hampshire, Bath, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Schleswig-Holstein, Berliner Festwochen, Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, Heimbach, Davos, Heidelberg Spring, Prague Autumn, Kuhmo, and others, playing with musicians like Christian Tetzlaff, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, Isabelle van Keulen, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Frank Peter Zimmerman, Kyoko Takezawa, Chee-Yun, Tabea Zimmermann, Peter Serkin, Paul Neubauer, Emmanuel Pahud, Paul Meyer, and Michael Collins.
For the prestigious BBC Music Magazine, Gerhardt recorded the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic and Neeme Järvi, followed by the Brahms Double with Lisa Batiashvili and the Barber Concerto (for Amati). The concertos by Michael Berkely, Frank Bridge (Orations with the Welsh BBC Symphony and Robert Hickox for Chandos), and Anton Rubinstein (for MDG) will be released in 2003. He has also recorded the Brahms Sonatas for Harmonia Mundi, for which he won the ECHO Classics Price, and a selection of Spanish encores for EMI. Television and radio stations in Europe and the United States have showcased Mr. Gerhardt numerous times.
Born in 1969 into a musical family, Alban Gerhardt started playing piano and cello at the age of eight, excelling in both instruments. His teachers included Markus Nyikos, Boris Pergamenschikov, and Frans Helmerson. After having enjoyed life in New York for 6 years, he moved back to his hometown, Berlin, last year with his wife, Katalina, and son, Janos Antonio.
TJ: Your father is a violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic. Did he practice with you when you were a child?
AG: No, he never did. Once a month or so he would come in the door and yell, “Everything you play is out of tune!” and then he’d slam the door. I used to blame him for my lack of progress, “Why don’t you practice with me? I could be better and I could win the youth competition.” But my father replied, “One day you’ll be happy that I didn’t practice with you,” and he was right, of course. I eventually realized that my father was teaching me to be independent.
TJ: What was your early cello training like?
AG: I began playing cello with Marion Vetter in Berlin when I was 8-1/2 years old. After her, I studied with one of the principal cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic — Götz Teutsch — for about a year, which didn’t work out. Then I went to Markus Nyikos, who is the teacher that I have to thank for much of my success.
I began my studies with Nyikos when I was twelve years old. I had already been playing difficult repertoire when we first met, like the Haydn C Major and the Arpeggione Sonata, but I was at a technical dead-end, so he had me start over from the very beginning. I played on open strings and did rudimentary finger exercises for over a year, never playing a single piece. When I finally began playing music, he would break it down and help me plan every motion, i.e. every bow stroke and left hand/arm motion. After studying with him for awhile, my friends began telling me how talented I was, but my sudden improvement wasn’t due to talent, I was just incredibly lucky to have Nyikos as my teacher. He was perhaps my most important teacher because he established a technical foundation that didn’t hold me back later in life.
He would tell me basic — but very important — things like to not lock the left hand and to keep it as relaxed as possible at all times. By keeping the left thumb and fingers free, shifting, vibrato, and endurance are allowed to develop to their fullest potential. I did a lot of Cossman and Feuillard exercises too, some of which I practice to this day. For example, I still do variations on the exercise shown in Example 1 over three octaves up and down the a string (see Example 1). I practice it very slowly and meticulously so that the fingers and brain are reminded where the positions are on a daily basis. I particularly like this exercise because it incorporates shifting back down a perfect fourth, which is a particularly dangerous interval on our instrument.
I find that even small distances are difficult. Take measures 40 in the slow movement of the Haydn C Major Concerto (see Example 2). I really struggled to play this in tune, but I wasn’t alone. I’ve even heard great cellists screw it up and it’s just a silly little scale! I’ve also heard it played well by cellists like Yo-Yo Ma, but it sounded very tentative, and not at all like how a singer would do it. Exercises like the one in Example 1 really help with this sort of passage.
TJ: Did Nyikos have helpful ideas on bow technique as well?
AG: Nyikos was best with the left hand. I credit Boris Pergamenschikov for my bow technique, but that came later. I studied with Nyikos for six years and then I went to Cincinnati for a year. I had a few lessons with Yehuda Hanani while there, but we didn’t click, so I focused on string quartet playing because the Tokyo and LaSalle String Quartets taught there at the time. Our student quartet only played two quartets that year — Zemlinsky 4th and Debussy — but we really got to know them inside and out. Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), for those who don’t know of him, was the only mentor Schoenberg ever had. When we played it in a master class with the Tokyo String Quartet, they didn’t know the piece, but they absolutely loved it. Two years later, when I was studying in Cologne, the Tokyo String Quartet played the same Zemlinsky quartet in concert in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. I went backstage after the concert and they told me that they were doing the Zemlinsky because of our student quartet! They thought it was a gorgeous piece. It’s sort of like Berg’s Lyric Suite.
TJ: What sort of things did you learn from your classes with the Tokyo and Lasalle Quartets?
AG: One particularly meaningful idea came from Peter Oundjian, who was the First Violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet. The Zemlinsky quartet ends in a double fugue and it grows from something like forte to fortissimo to triple forte. In order to create a sense of crescendo, we did a sudden drop in dynamics at the beginning of the section so that we had somewhere to go with the dynamics. He told us not to do that. He said that if you have a feeling you cannot play any louder, imagine that you are getting bigger and bigger inside, as if you’re blowing up like a balloon. When we tried this there was a sudden explosion of sound that we didn’t know was possible. When planned for ahead of time, a group may naturally start a little quieter, but there won’t be a jarring drop in sound. Now I’ve come to hate it when I hear others do a sudden drop in dynamics.
TJ: You’ve also had a few lessons with Heinrich Schiff.
AG: I found him to be incredibly inspiring because he is such a great musician. When I played the Bach E-flat Suite for him, he stressed the importance of each note ringing as if it were an open string, and with a special fullness of sound in the middle of each stroke. In order to do this, the strings must be stopped firmly with each playing finger in the left hand.
TJ: Isn’t there a risk of tiring out the hand with this approach? The left hand is already prone to tiring out in this suite due to the frequent use of extensions.
AG: This is a danger, but it can be avoided with careful practice. He warned me that it might take a year of agonizingly slow practice to achieve the ringing sound without tension build-up in the left hand, and he was right in my case. Since that time, I’ve never had any trouble with the E-flat Suite.
He had very helpful ideas on bow technique too. He believed that the right hand and fingers shouldn’t change their position ever, whether one is playing soft, loud, legato, or spiccato. Once you find a comfortable bow hold, stick with it.
TJ: In your master class here in Seattle, you demonstrated very little wrist or finger motion in your bow stroke, which you also learned from Heinrich Schiff. You don’t seem to advocate the paintbrush technique that Leonard Rose and some others advocate, which requires a much more complicated motion in the right hand and wrist.
AG: That’s right. Obviously, the hand shouldn’t be frozen and in tension; there should be a subtle flexibility. But there shouldn’t be an overly intricate motion. Let the fingers figure it out for themselves. For great role models, watch violinists such as Perlman and Zuckerman; they play fast, slow, and do all sorts of amazing pyrotechnics with the bow, but their right hands remain beautiful and calm.
TJ: Are you saying that the bow hand motion doesn’t change depending on whether you are playing fast or slow notes?
AG: That’s correct, though when playing fast separate notes, the hand should be a little firmer. This helps with coordination between the right and left hands.
TJ: Do you try to move your right hand in figure eights when doing long bows in order to smooth out the bow changes?
AG: No. If you want to hide the bow change, hide it with a change in bow speed. At the end of each stroke, increase the bow speed slightly and be sure to not lock your hand. A subtle flexibility should be maintained at all times. This is what Schiff showed me.
Again, look at the great fiddle players, their bow motion is not complicated. Sure, violinists have it a little easier than cellists since we cellists can’t use our weight when we’re at the tip, but we have to learn to imitate the ease with which violinists bow, and do it without getting tight.
TJ: How did you end up studying with Boris Pergamenschikov?
AG: I had a few lessons with Schiff while I was in Cincinnati. I wanted to study with him the following year, but he was going to take a year off from teaching. He didn’t think I should put my studies on hold for a year while I waited for him, so he recommended that I go to Pergamenschikov. I ended up studying with Pergamenschikov for three-and-a-half years in Cologne.
TJ: As you said before, Pergamenschikov was a great teacher for the bow.
AG: I really needed his help at that time. I had a horrible bow trembling and clammy fingers when I was in my early 20’s. I just didn’t hold the bow well.
One great exercise I learned was what he called the “banana bow,” which I still practice every day. I approach the string with the bow from above and sort of land it on the string with a horizontal motion, like landing an airplane, trying to get a great sound from the start. I do this instead of starting with the bow stroke on the string, because starting the bow stroke on the strings results in a closed sound. This exercise helps one feel as if the bow is just an extension of the arm. It takes lots of practice to perfect, because the full hair of the bow should be used in this exercise, but it has helped me tremendously with my bow control.
Another great thing is to practice is the first Piatti Etude incredibly slowly. There should be a sort of a wave motion in the arm that starts from the elbow when done correctly; the elbow should always initiate the motion in a bow stroke. The arm should feel very gooey and dense at the same time so that it doesn’t flop with a dead-weight. You should feel as if there are no joints in your arm. When I’m playing on the d string and I want to go to the g string, for example, the elbow goes down towards the g string in anticipation. But as soon as I hit the g string, my elbow is already on the way back up again. This is how a good legato can be produced.
I don’t like those schools where the student is required to hold the bow a certain way. Each student has a different body, so his or her angles between the various joints are different. Teachers should help students to figure out the optimal position for themselves rather than insisting that each student conform to some “ideal model.” This latter teaching attitude can destroy a student’s chances at a career, and the student will blame themselves for their lack of talent instead of realizing that they are being forced to do something that is wrong for them.
TJ: You said earlier that you don’t like starting with the bow on the string. You prefer to glide in, using your “banana bow” technique. Why?
AG: For me, starting on the string is an unmusical thing to do, at least most of the time, especially when beginning a melody, since the music doesn’t breathe. If you start a passage with a bow on the string, the sound starts without a natural “inhale.”
Imagine a good singer starting a note. They don’t inhale, hold their breath, and then let the sound burst out. They breathe in and then they sing in a most natural manner. Cellists should do the same thing. They should inhale and then bring their bow to the string using the banana bow technique.
TJ: My impression of Pergamenschikov is that he is pretty analytical.
AG: Pergamenschikov is a wonderful musician, but, unlike me, he works everything out ahead of time. When I entered a competition near the beginning of my time with him, he didn’t want me to do it because I wasn’t well-prepared. You can imagine how flabbergasted he was when I got first prize. He almost forbade me to enter the next competition for the same reason, but I did it anyway. For him, being well prepared means knowing exactly what one is going to do at any point in the performance. I don’t completely agree with this approach, since I love to leave some space for spontaneity, or should I call it a “risk for disaster”!
My favorite musician right now is Cecile Licad, a pianist who practically creates the pieces as she plays them. She studies the scores very carefully, but then she makes them her own and comes up with something new. For example, we rehearsed the Chopin Sonata intensely a few years ago in preparation for our New York debut as a duo. During the performance, she did things completely differently from what we had discussed, but it worked! In the Trio of the Scherzo, musicians typically play it rather joyfully and with overflowing emotion. When we reached the Trio, she played her part with barely any pedal and in a triple pianissimo, sounding like a harp, and this is how we played the entire Trio, like a distant dream. It was so beautiful that I got chills while playing it. We didn’t talk about doing this before the concert, it just happened in the moment, and that’s the wonderful thing that can happen in a performance, if you leave room for improvisational interpretation.
I view marks that were made by Chopin as suggestions, not requirements, so I feel comfortable doing whatever seems right during a performance. With Beethoven, on the other hand, I try to follow each marking as best as I can, though I hardly ever perform with music because I want to recreate the music as I play it; this is fine with me because my interpretations are rooted in the score. I memorize Beethoven’s instructions so that, hopefully, I’m being faithful to the score, though I expect that I put my own spin on the music.
I prefer this approach to what many young people do, which is to listen to a great performance on a recording and then use it as the starting point for their own interpretation. There are times when it’s difficult to recognize a piece because there are so many layers of interpretations piled on top of the original. These kids can often be rooted out because their rhythms are so distorted.
TJ: What do you think about Jacqueline du Pré’s statement, “When a composer writes a piece it’s his — when I play it, it’s mine”?
AG: I don’t quite agree, because the piece still belongs to the composer. The beauty of du Pré is that she was an extremely original and genuine player. Yes, she often did things that were different from what the composer asked, but most of time it worked, similar to Cecile Licad. But once people try to imitate these kind of geniuses, it easily becomes a caricature, because obviously it’s not original and not genuine anymore, it’s just an imitation. I still try to keep the composer’s ideas very much in my mind, even when I allow myself some freedom.
It has taken me the last two years to free myself up, especially with Beethoven. I was far too stiff, timid and, yes, Germanic in my approach. When I recently played the Beethoven A Major Sonata with Cecile Licad on Deutchland Radio, I worried about how the listeners might react, especially the producer of the show, who is a very serious classical music connoisseur. I knew Cecile was doing some things that weren’t in the score, and I expected the German audience to tear us apart. After all, we Germans think we know how Beethoven is supposed to be played, but we don’t. Cecile and I did some pretty unusual things, but I loved it, and I think Beethoven would have loved it. The producer loved it too, fortunately. He told us afterwards that Beethoven was inspired by the great French cellist, J.L. Duport, when he wrote these sonatas, and he said that, for the first time in his life, he heard the French influence in the piece as we played it. That’s quite a compliment!
I recently had lunch with one of my old professors, Gerhardt Samuel, who was the conductor of the University’s orchestra in Cincinnati. In addition to being a conductor, he is a fine violinist and composer and had studied composition with Hindemith. He told me that there are letters in which people complain about playing with Beethoven because he played with an unusual amount of freedom. But it wasn’t overly sentimental, it was more like a fantasy. This anecdote helps me to understand that there are times when one mustn’t be too rigid, especially with Beethoven. You have to forget about the bar lines without losing the sense of pulse.
TJ: You also studied with Frans Helmerson.
AG: Yes, when Pergamenschikov took a year off, Helmerson took his place. One particularly helpful thing Helmerson told me was that I need to remember that the g and c strings aren’t as brilliant as the a and d strings. I need to compensate when I play on the lower strings. If the line is going down in pitch, I almost have to think of crescendoing. Otherwise, the audience will not hear the low notes. This is something that many pianists don’t do well. They often focus on their right hand and forget that the bass line won’t carry into the audience without some extra attention being paid to their left hand. As a result, their left hand is often barely audible.
Speaking of the importance the bass register in a cello, I had an eye-opening experience with two quartets in Berlin several years ago. The Vogler Quartet, a young German quartet at the time, played first, and their playing was very beautiful. But then the Guarneri Quartet played, and their cellist, David Soyer, absolutely blew me away.
TJ: David Soyer is known for his beautiful bass lines.
AG: That was some of the most impressive cello playing I have ever heard. He carried the quartet with his full sonority. He hardly moved at all, but he had an amazing intensity, though without overwhelming the quartet. Since then I have been in several fights with other chamber players because they think I play the bass lines too loudly. They don’t realize that the cellist has to play with a certain sonority in the lower register in order to be heard as the fundamental.
TJ: What other helpful hints did Frans Helmerson give you?
AG: I had cut one of my fingers in my left hand and had placed a bandage on my finger. He noticed that I tended to play on my fingertips, approaching the strings fairly vertically, and he assumed that this was because of my injury. He said that I needed to go back to using the fleshy part of my fingers when my finger healed. He didn’t know that I played that way all the time. With this innocent comment, he opened my eyes to an entirely different type of playing.
The type of finger contact helps to explain why Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich sound so different from each other. Rostropovich plays with flatter fingers and has much more of a fleshy contact with the strings, and therefore his sound is very meaty. Yo-Yo, on the other hand, has very elegant, slender fingers, and no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be able to produce a sound like Rostropovich, not that Yo-Yo needs to sound like anybody but himself.
TJ: Is there a danger that some clarity is lost when playing with flatter fingers? Many play more on their fingertips when playing fast notes.
AG: I do that too. I vary how I hit the notes, depending on the passage. I don’t always play with flatter fingers.
TJ: You also played for Paul Tortelier.
AG: Yes, I was in his two-week course that took place at the Conservatoire de Geneva, just a month before he died. Before the class began, he was as charming as can be and he flirted with the young ladies. But as soon as it started, he became a totally different person. He didn’t care who you were when he was teaching. He’d scream at the top of his lungs in a student’s face, “More MORE!” It was rather terrifying.
He once kicked me out because he thought I was mocking him. He had given me a handwritten version of his cadenza for the Haydn D Major Concerto, which I still have. I played it the next day and had changed it a little during my practice sessions, which annoyed him. To cover myself, I’d say, “Sorry, that was a memory slip.” Near the end of the cadenza, I chose to play some notes on the c string. He said, “No, higher,” so I played the same thing on the g string, and, as a reflex, I immediately repeated it on the a string an octave higher. He thought I was making fun of him so he went into a rage and kicked me out of the hall. I was completely shocked. I wasn’t trying to make fun of him at all. Tortelier’s assistant came up to me as I was leaving and told me to come back two hours later, when Tortelier will have cooled off. When I entered the hall, Tortelier cried, “Mon ami!” and he was actually crying! It was so theatrical, and yet so sincere. Two weeks later, I received a full refund of my course fee with a letter explaining that Tortelier enjoyed working with me so much that he didn’t want my money.
Three years later, I entered the Leonard Rose Competition and Tortelier’s son, Yan-Pascal, was the conductor for the concertos. After I performed the Dvorak with him, he said that I reminded him of his father. This was strange because I hadn’t worked with his father on the Dvorak, though I watched him work with others in the master class. I remember Paul Tortelier discussing the triplet in the second theme of the first movement of the Dvorak Concert. He said, “Don’t do it the German way [see Example 3, very firm, clear triplet, clear articulation on the first note of the triplet]. Don’t do it the French way [more fancily, with lots of portato]. Do something in between.” In other words, don’t be too strict, but don’t be too obvious or overblown either, be more subtle.
TJ: You once played the E-flat Prelude for Tortelier. What happened?
AG: I was eighteen years old at the time. I was having a private lesson with him in his tiny hotel room, and he towered over me like wide-eyed, gangly ogre. He asked me what image I had when I played the Bach E-flat Prelude. I answered, “An organ?” He shouted back in my face, “No, MOUNTAINS!!!!” and he proceeded make me play it like a wild man. His outbursts were inspired by his musical desire, so they were easy to deal with. I don’t play like that anymore because I have become more interested in authentic performance practice, but I will never forget his love for Bach’s music.
TJ: Let’s talk about a few more technical details. You said earlier that you avoid extensions in the left hand when possible. Why?
AG: I used to use extensions a lot, but then I had to stop doing it for awhile because of a bike accident. During that time, I discovered that my intonation was much better when I didn’t stretch my hand. Of course, there are times when an extension can’t be avoided. Sometimes the music demands pristine clarity, and the only way to achieve this is to use extensions. But most of the time there are fingerings that work just as well or better than fingerings that require extensions. Why make life any more difficult than you have to?
TJ: You said that one of the problems with the first three Bach Suites is that they are in the lower positions, where the notes are further apart.
AG: It’s important to be aware that the first three positions are not the most natural for our hands. If you put your perfectly relaxed hand on the fingerboard in first position, your fingers will be too close together. You have to be in a constant stretched state in the lower positions.
This is a particularly important thing for me to remember because my fourth finger is very short. Whenever I play in fourth position, I have to constantly remind myself to stretch my fourth finger so that it isn’t too low all the time. Whenever I get tired in a performance, it tends to go flat in pitch because I don’t have the strength to move it sharper. Because of this, I often avoid using it. My fourth finger is a bit crooked too, which makes matters worse.
TJ: Do you try to keep the left hand perpendicular to the strings?
AG: Yes, though there are times when this is impossible. But one’s intonation will be much better if this is done. Intonation will falter if there are too many changes in hand position.
TJ: Are you able to hit big shifts accurately because you conceive of the fingerboard in terms of blocks of notes?
AG: Not really. I practice shifts exceedingly slowly so that I can hear the upper note approaching and then I stop when I reach it, as if I’m grabbing a flag on the way. While I do this I pay attention to how my arm and hand feel so that I eventually memorize the feeling. And I make sure that I practice the shift in as relaxed a manner as possible, including not shifting with my hand in a stretched position; if there is tension, sensitivity is lessened or even completely blocked. Then I very gradually increase the tempo of the shift while remaining relaxed.
TJ: In the Lalo Concerto you said that one should relax as much as possible, but pretend to play loudly. How does one do this?
AG: One has to conserve one’s energy in the Lalo Concerto, especially in the first movement, because there are not that many breaks and there are relentless runs of notes. The trick is to play with energy and be musically interesting, but without tiring out, which means one has to come up with a less stressful method that has the same impact.
TJ: Related to this, Timothy Eddy, in his ICS interview, once told a student, “You are driven by excitement and passion, but these shouldn’t be channeled into physically working harder.”
AG: Exactly. I remember playing the Rachmaninoff Sonata with Cecile Licad. She played with the lid open, but there were no balance problems whatsoever, even though she seemed to be attacking the piece with all her might. Obviously she was holding back, otherwise I would have been covered up easily. But she wasn’t in the background either. She was fully present and artistically engaged without being overpowering. We have to do the same sort of thing in the Lalo Concerto.
I hate it when pianists play more like an accompanist, instead of like an equal partner. I once heard a famous cellist play the Rachmaninoff Sonata with a pianist when I was young. The pianist played so inaudibly that I walked out of the concert thinking that the Rachmaninoff Sonata is a bad piece. When Cecile Licad asked me to play the piece with her, I declined at first because I had so little respect for it. Of course, after playing it with Cecile, I now understand that the Rachmaninoff Sonata is one of the most gorgeous pieces ever written.
TJ: In the Lalo Concerto, you recommend using more pressure in the right hand instead of the left hand. Do you the opposite in quiet places, where you play with more intensity in the left hand when playing more lightly with the bow?
AG: No, actually I never play with a heavy left hand. My basic left hand technique doesn’t really change depending on the intensity of the music. The key is to have clear articulation whether playing loudly or softly. Students often play more intensely with the left hand when the music becomes more intense, but this can be deadly, especially in a piece like the first movement of the Lalo Concerto. You have to constantly remind yourself to relax, especially when the notes are fast.
In fast passages, the hand should be as still as possible, since economy of motion is absolutely vital. I remember watching videos of David Oistrakh playing some lightning fast passages; his hand hardly moved. We can all learn from his example.
TJ: When discussing the Barber Concerto, you said in your master class that even more perfect intonation and rhythm is required when playing contemporary music.
AG: Modern music has to be played more accurately than the standard Classical and Romantic pieces because, in more traditional works, the audience can mentally fix the music when something goes wrong. The audience members already struggle to understand contemporary music, so the last thing they need to worry about is something as basic as finding a tonal center. Otherwise, they’ll think the piece is bad, which isn’t fair to the composer.
I had to say this to the student in the master class because he was really struggling with intonation. He played something reminiscent of Barber, but that’s about it. This reminds me of the time I played for Arto Noras in a master class. He was so hard on me about my intonation that I started crying in front of everybody. He explained to me afterwards that he sensed that I was very talented, but that I wasn’t doing enough with my gifts, so he was trying to push me to greater heights. I felt a great responsibility in my master class yesterday to help the student see that he needed to work harder, but I was much nicer to him than Noras was to me.
TJ: You don’t like it when somebody initiates vibrato before the note has started.
AG: The danger of starting vibrato before the note begins is that you can easily be out of tune when you begin playing. For example, if you come in when your hand is at the bottom of a vibrato cycle, you will be flat. Also, it’s just not necessary to start the vibrato before, musically speaking. It doesn’t help, not to mention that it can distract the audience.
Vibrato used to be one of my weaknesses. I used to vibrate too much, especially when I was nervous, so I had to remind myself to not vibrate all the time. There is a live recording of my performance of the Frank Bridge Oration — Concerto Elegiac. I am proud of the performance because there is such a variety of vibratos, which I don’t remember doing consciously. I usually cringe when I listen to my recordings, so I was happily surprised when I heard it. I’m anxious about my upcoming recording session of the piece because I worry that I won’t be able to match the spontaneity of my live recording.
I don’t like it when musicians habitually start a note without vibrato either. Generally speaking, a note’s beginning should be clearly articulated, and starting without vibrato goes against this idea. Many people play very well, but they don’t allow the music to speak; they don’t pronounce each note clearly with their bows and left hands. Switching the vibrato button ‘on’ and ‘off’ is not the way to do this.
TJ: I once read a book that listed some of the recurring traits of those who achieve remarkable success in life. One of these is that highly successful people are usually the ones who are willing to do the things that others are unwilling to do. With this in mind, what are some of the things that you did that separated you from your young colleagues?
AG: I’ve never been too proud to practice very basic exercises, and I still do them, like the banana bow exercise mentioned earlier, or scales. I also practiced very intensely when I was young. When I studied in Cologne, I woke up between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning everyday so that I could practice before classes began. These things definitely helped.
I played for Rostropovich when I was 12 years old, playing repertoire that I had no business playing. When I went to Nyikos, I was humble enough to stop playing music altogether, and I agreed to play on open strings and do basic finger exercises for a year. Not many people would be willing to do that either.
Career-wise, I’m willing to try anything. Some turn down certain types of music because they feel that their career has reached a point that they can be choosier. But I love learning new ways of thinking about things and finding new pieces to play, so I’ll try just about anything. For example, the Scottish BBC Orchestra asked me if I would play Oration — Concerto Elegiac by Frank Bridge. My manager asked me if I wanted to see the music first before I agreed to do it. I replied that I wasn’t particularly good at reading a score in order to decide if a piece is good or not, so I’d rather just do it. If it’s bad, I won’t play it again. It turned out to be a beautiful piece and we performed it in 2000. In 2001, Chandos decided to record all of Bridge’s music. Somebody sent a recording of my live performance of Oration to Chandos’ producer and I was asked to record it for them. My willingness to try something new really paid off in this case.
Some cellists probably turned down the idea of learning Bridge’s music because he isn’t a major composer, and because Oration is a big, difficult piece. I certainly had enough concerts, so I didn’t agree to do it out of desperation. I was just happy to do something that forced me to practice. If I have two weeks off, I’m more inclined to leave my cello in the corner. Projects like the Bridge keep me interested.
TJ: Another of your secrets to success seems to be your willingness to practice things very slowly.
AG: I learned many practicing tricks from my experience as a pianist, one of which is to practice each hand separately very slowly. This is a great method for practicing on the cello too.
One helpful thing that my father told me was that one has to avoid playing anything incorrectly because the fingers will remember every wrong note. Playing slowly gives one time to think and to plan for what’s coming. Sure, we all make mistakes at times, even when playing slowly. But when this happens, we have to rewind, analyze why the error occurred, and then do it again, correctly.
This idea applies to the bow too, not just the left hand. One’s bow distribution must be planned very carefully so that bowings don’t get in the way of the music. For example, after we’re done with this interview I’m going to play through the entire Lalo Concerto very slowly before tonight’s performance with the Seattle Symphony. And I’ll do it with all the expression and intensity, but not the sound that I’ll have when I perform. I want to make sure that my bow distribution and fingerings are still settled in my mind. If I don’t do this, I would feel unprepared for the concert.
I remember my father telling me about the time the Berlin Philharmonic was on tour in Japan with pianist Emil Gilels. My father had gone to bed in his hotel room. Suddenly, he heard piano music upstairs, but he didn’t recognize the piece. He listened and listened until he realized that it was the last movement of the Mozart Concerto they were touring with. Gilels was playing through the entire concerto after the concert, but twenty times slower, and still with every nuance, dynamic, and color in place. This was a great life lesson for me; if a genius like Gilels needs to practice slowly, then so do I.
TJ: You also said in your master class to not just correct something and move on. The practice of moving your fingers to the correct position and continuing on with the phrase does more harm than good.
AG: Correction is the worst thing one can do because the fingers can become confused. My father explained to me that the fingers have a brain of their own, in a sense. I remember talking with students at an elementary school, where I was introducing the cello to children. The teacher asked, “How do you hit the notes when there are no frets?” I replied that I didn’t really know, but clearly the answer has to do with hours and hours of careful practicing, not just mindless repetition.
TJ: You mentioned in your master class that there are places in pieces where people play something in a certain way because of performance tradition rather than taking a fresh look at the score. What are some examples?
AG: In the Lalo there is a measure where people always take time (see Example 4), but I think this passage is misunderstood. It requires tension, not just time. There is a tension in the chord that is indescribable, but then the phrase keeps going. People tend to imitate the great artists of the past, but they don’t understand how that interpretation was arrived at because they don’t feel the music inside themselves. They’re just trying to replicate the sounds they’ve heard from others.
Pianists do the same thing. For instance, pianists often butcher the Schumann Piano Concerto. Cecile Licad asked me to help her rehearse it by playing the second piano part with her because she had never played the piece before. It was incredibly refreshing to listen to her play what was actually written instead of mimicking past performers.
TJ: You also mentioned the Dvorak Concerto (see Example 5).
AG: That’s right. The score says “pesante,” not “ritardando.” I must admit that I play and think ritardando, but I’m aware that Dvorak didn’t indicate this. I once chose to not play the ritardando, thinking “To hell with the it, I’m going to play it straight this time,” and people looked at me as if I was breaking a law.
TJ: Gary Hoffman mentioned another example, which is in the first movement (see Example 6).
AG: Yes, cellists usually slow down there for some reason. There’s no change of tempo indicated in the score. One should keep an ear on the bassoon in this passage.
TJ: Do you think of music in terms of speaking instead of singing.
AG: No, my mother is a singer and singing is absolutely my priority, but there are different ways of singing, of course, like the art of Maria Callas versus Edith Scharzkopf. Their phrasing and connecting of notes, though very different, was done in such a way that they make you forget about individual notes; notes become music. Unfortunately, there are many musicians who think of singing that tend to forget that singing also includes words, and that’s where the speaking comes in; Harnoncourt wrote that “music begins where language stops.” Music is the continuation of language, but it’s the unspeakable.
Harnoncourt wrote a book called Music as Sound Language, in which he discusses the importance of understanding the language of a piece. That’s why it’s important to understand how music sounded in Bach’s time. We cannot use the same approach in Bach’s music that we use in the Dvorak Concerto. We should all try playing Bach at least once on a Baroque instrument, since it might help us to discover how we might change our approach. But then Harnoncourt says later that the instrument one uses doesn’t matter. You can play Bach on an electric cello if you want, as long as you understand the language of the music.
TJ: What about Romantic music? Does it have more of a singing than speaking element?
AG: It doesn’t matter if it’s Baroque, Classical, or Romantic, music always sings, but in its own language. Listen to a great singer like Maria Callas, there are words being clearly enunciated, and some words have more emphasis than others, just like in the spoken language. Romantic instrumental music should be played with this same idea in mind. The articulation shouldn’t be done in a pedantic, exaggerated manner, but the musical language should be clearly understandable. I don’t like musical mumbling.
TJ: You were quoted in the Strad a few years ago as saying that you didn’t want to join an orchestra because you’d be thinking the whole time that you were better than everybody else. Did you really say that?
AG: No, I never said that and it greatly distresses me that those words were put in my mouth. What I had explained to the interviewer was that I felt I wasn’t ready to settle down to a full-time job because I felt that I was still growing as a cellist and I was still pursuing other adventures.
My father is in the Berlin Philharmonic, so I grew up listening to one of the world’s greatest orchestras. I attended countless rehearsals and concerts and I dreamed of becoming its principal cellist for many years. My life plan was to try out for the principal cellist’s position when I reached age 25, which is also when the principal cellist at that time would reach age 65, the mandatory retirement age in Germany.
It so happened that the principal cellist had horrible back problems and he retired when he was 61 years old. I was only 21 at that time, and I was still trying to reach my limits as a musician. I had won a competition in Germany and had started to play some solo concerts, including soloing with the Berlin Philharmonic. My father and some of his colleagues encouraged me to audition for the position but I felt that it was four years too early. I hadn’t reached my potential. My father and I had some long talks, him saying that I could achieve my goals while in the orchestra. But I knew that I was, and still am, lazy by nature, so I would not work as hard on my own playing if I were surrounded by such beautiful music and being paid so well. My father countered that I only had to play something like seventeen services per month, so there would be plenty of time for me to work on other things. But I told my father that I didn’t want to end up being one of those orchestral players who sat there dreaming of great solo careers while never being fully present in the orchestra. I knew that one has to be totally dedicated to one’s job to be a good orchestral player, and I wasn’t ready to do that yet. I had to explore my limits.
It was out of this long explanation that the Strad quoted me as saying that I thought I was too good to play in an orchestra. On the contrary, I don’t think I would have made a good principal cellist. The qualities of a principal cellist are completely different to the qualities of a good soloist. The principal cellist has to be spot on at all times. Every five or six concerts there is a solo, and it has to be perfect, even if it’s only two bars. To this day, whenever I listen to Also Sprach Zarathustra and hear the trumpet’s signal just before the cello solo, my heart starts racing. When I played this in youth orchestra, I probably missed thirty percent of the notes because I was so nervous, even though it’s not very difficult.
A principal cellist also has to be able to follow instructions from the conductor, and I’ve never been very good at that. I think I have too much to say on my own and I don’t want to be shut down by a conductor. I suppose I could have become a good principal cellist as I gained more experience, but I wasn’t ready to do that at age 21.
When I solo with an orchestra, I’m the most nervous during the first rehearsal because I have so much respect for the musicians. They’re all good musicians and it’s always a choice and/or luck that determines in which direction one goes in music. I consider soloists and orchestral players to be pretty much on the same level. We’re all dedicated to our craft and we’re all striving to do a composer justice by playing as beautifully as possible.