Interview by Tim Janof
Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk was the first Scandinavian to be a finalist and prize winner in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982. He was a prize winner in the Naumberg Competition in New York in 1986 and the Cassado Cello Competition in Florence in 1983, and received the UNESCO Prize at the European Radio-Union competition in Bratislava. Since 1989, he has worked with the major orchestras of Europe, including the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the London Symphony, and the City of Birmingham Symphony. In 1994 he was the featured soloist on a nationwide tour with the Oslo Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons, with appearances in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, among others. He is also a dedicated chamber musician with many festival appearances to his credit. Additionally, his recording of the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 with the London Philharmonic was nominated for a Grammy. Mr. Mørk plays a rare Domenico Montagnana cello (Venice 1723), purchased for him by SR-Bank in Norway.
TJ: Your parents were musicians. Were they professionals?
TM: Yes. My father was a cellist and my mother was a pianist. My mother began teaching me the piano when I was seven years old, but it didn’t work out because my progress did not keep up with her great ambition for me.
A few years later, my parents thought that I should try the violin. My father convinced the violinist in his string quartet to teach me. Unfortunately, the violinist was out of town so often that I sometimes had to wait six months between lessons. Finally my father decided that I should play the cello and that he would teach me himself.
I was happy to play the cello because it was a large instrument, admittedly not the most profound of reasons. I also felt a certain affinity for the cello since my father played so beautifully; I knew how it was supposed to sound. I decided to start my lessons with the first Bach cello suite and Brahms E minor Sonata, even though there was no way I could really play them. This turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be, but, because I loved these pieces so much, I was willing to work very hard on them.
My father didn’t want to push me too hard in my cello studies. I always had to ask him to give me a lesson. He used to say, “Don’t practice too much. If you do, you will become a musician.” When he sensed that I was becoming too insistent about how to play a certain passage, he would eventually intervene and would help me find other ways of thinking about it. He didn’t want me to take music so seriously.
TJ: At what age did you begin your studies with Frans Helmerson?
TM: I was seventeen. He was on tour most of the time, so he only gave lessons every few weeks. Between lessons, his students, six of us at the time, would stay at school from seven in the morning until eleven at night, practicing, discussing music, and listening to records. It was a very inspiring environment.
He had a philosophical approach to music. He rarely discussed fine technical details, like which fingerings or bowings to use, but he did talk about how one should play music from the different periods. In Beethoven, for instance, he would emphasize the importance of articulation, especially with the smaller valued notes. He felt that overlooking the small notes was a sign that we were thinking of the music in terms of long lines, which he considered to be an overly Romantic approach. When playing Bach he had a more Romantic view; he insisted that we play Bach in a fairly strict tempo. He also emphasized articulation, like he did with Beethoven.
TJ: Why do you consider his approach to Bach as Romantic? I would think that insisting you play in a fairly strict tempo as un-Romantic, since it’s less self-indulgent.
TM: I think of it as more Romantic because it forces you to take a wider, more structural view of the work. It forces you to think in terms of longer lines, instead of enjoying the moment to moment details. Rostropovich, for instance, doesn’t emphasize the smaller details in the Bach Suites; he approaches them like they are grand cathedrals. Romantic music moves from one point to another with dramatic development, which is not the case in Bach’s music.
TJ: You don’t think of the G pedal point in the Prelude of the Third Suite as a climactic section?
TM: No, I don’t. That’s more of a Romantic approach. If you look at Baroque art forms, like architecture, you will see that a lot of emphasis is placed upon the smaller moments. The art is teeming with lively details, each of which is full of emotion. Because of this, I’m not convinced that Bach should be played metronomically.
TJ: And yet Bach based the Suites on dance forms, which would imply a need for a sense of pulse.
TM: It may seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. There’s a difference between playing metronomically and playing in such a way that the general feeling or character of the dance is captured. Each eighth or sixteenth note need not be placed exactly on the beat; it can be placed slightly before or slightly after, in order to convey the feeling of a dance. Take a Strauss waltz, for instance. You shouldn’t play each beat perfectly in time, you should play the second beat slightly early and the third slightly late. There should be this same sort of freedom in Bach. You will give his music life if you don’t play everything so precisely.
I want to avoid too “square” of an interpretation. I don’t want to be too concerned about the mathematics of the music. I prefer thinking about the changing colors, the intensity of certain chords, and the tension of certain intervals. I want to enjoy each moment of the music.
By the way, I remember studying these dance forms with a Baroque dance specialist. I discovered that the actual dance tempos were so slow that they would be unplayable on the cello. Nobody could dance to the Bach Cello Suites as they are traditionally played because the tempos would be much too fast. I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to think of the Bach Suites in terms of dances.
TJ: Do you think of Bach’s music as emotional?
TM: Yes, I do.
TJ: Anner Bylsma thinks that we may make too much of the emotion in Bach’s music, since music did not function as an emotional outlet for the composers in the Baroque era. It was their job.
TM: That’s true. It wasn’t until the Romantic era that composers began using music more as a means of personal expression. But whether or not the composer had a personal connection with the music as he wrote it does not affect my experience of the music. As I perform a piece, I’m thinking about how it affects me, not how it may have affected the composer, which I can’t possibly know anyway.
Anner Bylsma, by the way, is one who plays Bach very freely when it comes to the rhythmic elements and articulations. He plays with a wonderful fantasy. I have heard him play many times, and each time it comes out very differently. I am amazed at his freedom, which I think is more appropriate for Baroque music. He may not agree with this, but I consider his playing to be very emotional.
TJ: You seem to have strong ideas on Bach.
TM: I actually don’t feel like I do. In fact, I don’t perform the Bach Suites because I don’t think that I have a conception of any particular value at the moment. I will have to work on them for quite some time before I feel that I am ready.
TJ: You also worked with Russian cellist Natalia Schakowskaya. Why did you choose to study with her?
TM: I was fascinated with the Russian School and I had collected many recordings of Russian cellists. I was a great Rostropovich admirer in those early years. I loved his ability to create so many different combinations of dynamics and colors on the cello. Schakowskaya was a student of Rostropovich, so I was extremely happy to work with her.
TJ: What makes the Russian style unique?
TM: It is a very warm style, which is partly the result of how they put more weight into the instrument and dig deeper into the instrument with their bow. They also have a special understanding of how to use melodic vibrato.
TJ: What do you mean by “melodic vibrato?”
TM: Their vibrato varies with the melody much more. It’s not used to smooth out the phrase so that each note sounds the same. It has many shades and is used to highlight certain important notes, which can be accomplished either by vibrating more or by vibrating less, depending on the context. There is a whole range of vibrato that is neglected, especially by the German School, which strives for an evenness and consistency of vibrato for each note, as if the ideal is the Hammond organ. I find that an even vibrato takes the life out of music.
Some argue that an even vibrato helps establish a sense of longer line, but I don’t agree with this approach. Music is not composed of smooth lines. It is composed of individual notes that are strung together. Just because notes are connected does not mean they all have to sound alike. Some notes are more important than others and therefore deserve special treatment, warranting a different color and intensity.
TJ: Did Schakowskaya help you with technique?
TM: She helped me tremendously. She had me work very hard on scales and etudes. She also demanded incredible precision and expected, no matter what I played, whether a scale, etude, or concerto, that it be played on a high level. She had an extremely high standard and pushed me very hard, for which I am very grateful.
TJ: When I saw your performance of the Shostakovich First Concerto a couple of years ago, I noticed that you tend to place your fingers very carefully, even in the fast passages. I never had the sense that you were throwing your arm up, hoping for the best. Does this careful approach come from her?
TM: Perhaps. I don’t want to lose technical control when I play.
TJ: Are you conscious of some line you don’t want to cross so that you maintain control? Do you ever get close to that line?
TM: My goal is to have the maximum intensity and musical input with a minimum of risks. I don’t want to risk messing up the passage or losing my sound, so I spend a lot of time in my practice sessions going to the edge and over it. I try over-pressing with my bow or playing softer than the cello can speak, since I think it’s important to know where the limits really are and how far I can go. It’s crucial that you know your instrument by feeling or even by look so that you can compensate for the fact that things sound much differently on stage. I want to do as much as I can on stage while still playing in control.
TJ: Are you ever frustrated by the limitations of your instrument?
TM: Yes, all the time. I have a wonderful instrument, but I always want more than it is able to give.
TJ: Are you aware of the audience when you perform?
TM: How can I not be? We cellists must face the audience; there’s no escape. Pianists don’t face the audience and violinists can always turn away if they feel like it. There are times when I want to concentrate solely on the music, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but be influenced by the crowd.
This brings up an important point. There are three parts to every performance: the performer, the music, and the audience. It is the combination of the three that makes the music come alive. People may not realize it, but the audience is just as important as the other two. Many think that they go to a performance as an objective observer, but this is rarely the case. It is very important that the audience members come with all their senses, and are willing to concentrate. When this happens something special occurs; music is not only on stage, it is throughout the hall.
TJ: One of your big influences growing up was a singer, Fischer-Diskau. Do you try to sing with the cello when you play?
TM: Yes. I think of the cello as basically a singing instrument. The cello is the instrument that mimics the human voice most closely, having the same register and the same melodic qualities. We try to make it sound virtuosic but we can’t because it’s so large. It’s kind of pathetic when we try to make the cello do violinistic things.
TJ: What does singing with your instrument really mean? Is there some sort of connection with your body as you play, as if the cello is your voice?
TM: There’s definitely a connection. I feel like I am singing to the audience through my cello, instead of using my voice. My throat tightens and loosens as if I am singing, though the notes come out of the cello. I also notice a connection between the music and my breathing. I try to breathe with the phrases, so I usually take a breath before starting a new phrase.
TJ: When discussing Vladimir Horowitz, you once said, “His asymmetric emphasis releases you from the bar lines.” What does this mean?
TM: He tended to accent notes that usually aren’t accented, often completely changing the character of a phrase. You should listen to a recording of him playing in the Tchaikovsky A minor Piano Trio. His approach was truly unique.
TJ: Is this something to be admired, or was it just unmusical?
TM: Great music making doesn’t necessarily need to be so pure. A true artist takes risks, perhaps playing a little crazily at times, and maybe even doing things that are in bad taste. Free thinking and creativity is an important element in art. I may not choose to play like Horowitz, but I still very much admire him.
TJ: You once used the phrase, “purity of expression” when discussing some early Baroque music. What does this phrase mean to you?
TM: It is an approach to the music that is very natural and uncomplicated. You have purity of expression when you play without too many distortions, perhaps keeping your feelings out of the way.
TJ: But you don’t strive for purity of expression in all music. You once said that you are actually looking for distortions in pieces like the Schumann Concerto.
TM: That’s true. I am fascinated by music like the Schumann Concerto because it is music on the edge, almost breaking the rules.
TJ: Some believe that the last movement of the Schumann Concerto is weak compared to the others. Do you agree?
TM: I don’t think so. The last movement is ecstatic and playful. It’s on the edge of an inescapable hysteria, in a way. If you are able to convey this slightly feverish feeling, its neurotic element, the movement becomes magical. Of course, this is difficult to achieve because it is a technically difficult piece, clearly composed by a pianist, and not a cellist.
TJ: When discussing the Benjamin Britten’s Solo Cello Suites, you once indicated that “each suite is exploring some new aspect of technique.” How does Britten accomplish this?
TM: In the First Suite, he plays with many of the known virtuosic techniques, like double stops, pizzicato, and col legno. This suite is the most inviting to the listener. The Second Suite explores the various colors available on the instrument, like the colors of the different strings. He has you play melodies very high up on the G or D string, which makes the whole suite feel more personal. The melodic elements are larger and faster in this suite as well. The Third Suite is full of abrupt, fragmentary elements that make it very difficult to maintain a sense of drama. You must strive to maintain the intensity despite the jagged nature of the music. We are very lucky to have these suites.
TJ: You worked with Lutoslawski on his concerto. What was it like working with him? Was he very particular about each marking, or did he allow you a lot of freedom?
TM: He was very particular about the details at first. After awhile he let me go. He was a fantastic personality because he had such a clear idea about what he wanted. He also had total control of all elements in the orchestra, even though the work is very difficult to conduct. I went to him with millions of questions about his piece, and I was struck by how interested he was in just thinking about the score and its notes. He wasn’t interested in any extra-musical ideas, like stories or feelings. For him, it was just music.
TJ: Did your experience with Lutoslawski give you insight into other composers? Did it make you wonder if composers of the past thought about music in a similar fashion?
TM: Composers are unique individuals, so I don’t generalize my experience with Lutoslawski to other composers. Some composers are very analytical and think of music as just notes and chords. Others are more poetic and compose music that is personally very meaningful to them. Everybody’s different.
I have played the Dutilleux Concerto many times, including in front of the composer. Dutilleux is also particular about his notes, but his music and approach are entirely different. He’s much more poetic, and seems much more interested in the overall color impression of his music.
It’s very important to look at the score but there are many secrets in the score that are not written down. There are many elements of the harmonic and rhythmic structure that may not be apparent by just looking at the notes. Understanding what’s written is just the start of the discovery process.
You can make some surprising discoveries when you look at the original manuscript. I recently recorded the Elgar Concerto with Simon Rattle. We studied the score very carefully and tried to follow it closely. We discovered that the original tempos are much faster than our current performance tradition. The first movement is marked much faster, and the slow movement is usually played half the tempo of Elgar’s own marking.
TJ: Is it possible that playing the slow movement much slower gives the piece more meaning, perhaps making it less frivolous, and therefore “better.”
TM: I don’t know. Great performers have played it so convincingly and with such charisma that we tend to copy them instead of going back to the score. It is possible that something is added to the piece by slowing it down. Maybe Elgar would have liked it better slower. It’s hard to say.
TJ: I notice in your recordings a real sense of proportion in your phrasing. How do you play such that it doesn’t sound exaggerated or idiosyncratic?
TM: I have two opposing forces within myself when I phrase. I want to be expressive and emotional, but I also want to stay within the frame of the phrase. I step back and look at the overall shape of each phrase, and then I try to determine the context of each note. Certain notes may need more emphasis, but that doesn’t mean you exaggerate them so much that one notices individual notes instead of the overall line.
“How much?” is a very important question in the art of music making? How much vibrato? How much of a crescendo or diminuendo? How much of an accent? How much of a ritardando or accelerando? This question should come up often when you work on a piece.
TJ: I noticed, in your recording of the Dvorak Concerto, that you slow down in the second theme of the first movement (measure 140).
TM: Before I address this, I want to talk about recordings. Recordings represent how one plays on a particular day, with a particular conductor and orchestra. They do not represent one’s definitive and final interpretation. There have been times when I have listened to one of my recordings a few weeks after I finished it and I wished I could change something. Recordings merely document how I played at a certain moment in time. Music making is a constantly evolving process, especially with a piece like the Dvorak Concerto, which I play so often. I’m always trying to improve certain elements, shaping phrases differently, and so on.
As for your question about the second theme of the Dvorak Concerto, yes, I do play a little slower. Dvorak’s manuscript indicates a slower tempo.
TJ: Ralph Kirshbaum cautions against slowing down too much because it tends to destabilize the architecture of the movement.
TM: Tempo changes are common in Romantic music. Grieg’s music, for example, has many extreme tempo changes. Of course, if you followed his tempo markings exactly it would sound a little silly.
TJ: Why do you choose to follow Dvorak’s tempo markings and not Grieg’s?
TM: I like what Dvorak indicated, and I simply enjoy playing in different tempos.
TJ: With so many tempo variations in a single movement, isn’t there a danger of losing a sense of flow and structure? You start to notice individual sections instead of seeing the piece as a whole.
TM: Of course, the tempo variations shouldn’t be too exaggerated. But there are other ways for a piece to be tied together besides consistency of tempo. Maybe what gives the Dvorak a sense of cohesiveness is that there is a succession of different moods. Perhaps this is the line that you are looking for. Maybe we need to stop applying Classical period concepts to Romantic period music, and let go of the idea that everything should be well-proportioned and connected, and that everything must flow nicely. This would apply to contemporary music as well.
My guess is that only trained musicians think about concepts such as architecture, sense of line, and flow. The vast majority of the audience probably responds to the slowing of tempo at the second theme by thinking, “Oh, what a beautiful melody!” They just relax and enjoy the music. Perhaps they’re on to something.
TJ: So, are you striving to find the objectively “perfect” interpretation that will satisfy your colleagues, or are you striving to play in more of a spontaneous manner?
TM: That’s a difficult question. I’m split between these two because they are almost from different worlds. Part of me is searching for the “optimal” solution, where I try to find the perfect balance between themes, make the music flow better, play with long lines, and play with emotion but not too much. The other side of me wants to just let go and become totally involved in the moment, and to not worry what the critics may think. The first is a fairly objective view of music, while the second is more subjective, and perhaps more satisfying.
I’d say the most important thing to realize is that music can be performed in many different ways. You are free to play however you wish. You can be cerebral, emotional, spontaneous, or whatever works for you. Everybody’s approach is unique, and that’s what makes music so fascinating.