Friday, March 14, 2008

Different cellos, different interpretation?

This is the million dollar question of the project.

During the last few weeks I have been playing all three cellos a lot.
The Mirecourt sounds fantastic. I am using it daily because my Strathcona String Quartet is recording a CD, consisting of original compositions and arrangements of
jazz standards by George Andrix. About half of the works will be for string quartet alone. For the other half, the Quartet will be joined by Joel Gray (trumpet) and John Taylor (bass), both widely respected members of the Edmonton Jazz Community.
We recorded the string quartet pieces last week. The sextet pieces will be recorded on the 24th.
Of course I have been using my Mirecourt for this, and it is great!

Since I am going to London with Edmonton Economic Development at the end of the month, I have been practicing my carbon fibre cello a lot as well. And since I love the sound of the baroque cello so much, of course I have been playing it regularly too.

As you may remember, I had decided which suite to play on which cello.
Until I was asked to go to London, I was faithfully practicing the suites on the instruments that I had decided to play them on. So I practiced the 1st on the Mirecourt, the 2nd on the baroque cello, the 3rd on the carbon, suite 4 on my Mirecourt and #5 on the baroque.

Then came the London trip. I will take the carbon fibre cello, so... I need to make sure that I have played suites #1 to 4 (which I will be performing there) on the carbon.
What I have now discovered is that I play the suite completely differently, depending on the instrument. I
choose completely different fingerings, different tempi, different dynamics even!

I shall try to describe the differences:

  • The baroque cello is set up with gut strings: unwound a and d, and silver wound G and C. It is tuned to 4:15. Because the bridge is lower and the strings are tuned lower, the tension is much lower. This gives the strings a lot more "slack"; therefore, the strings respond slower. The overtones are much richer, the sound more intimate.

  • The Mirecourt has an unequaled character. Every string is a little different, making fingering choices challenging, since the string I play it on changes the feel of a section a lot. Having said that; I will contradict myself and say that this cello sounds very even across the strings. The mood can just be different from one string to the next, much more than on the carbon fibre cello.

  • The carbon fibre sounds like it has built-in amplification. It is very fast, very smooth, with almost no change when you go from one string to the next.

Let's take a look at the prelude of the first, G major suite. Towards the end of the movement we get the following passage:

I like to bring out the bass notes on the d-string.

  • On the baroque cello this happens almost automatically. The open a-string is so mellow that it never screams at you or demands attention. It sounds exactly the way I believe it should sound.
  • On the Mirecourt I have to try hard to get the sound that I got so easily on the baroque cello. The a-string tends to stand out. In spite of a "Larsen soloist soft" string, I have to work really hard in order to have the a-string not bark at me when I play this passage.
  • On the carbon fibre cello I get confronted with an entirely different problem: the notes sound much too equal. It is so "nice". There is absolutely nothing "offensive" about the sound, but it totally lacks character, unless I work really hard at making one note stand out over the other.
    So in a way this cello demands the most work to get the sound I want, even though it is the easiest to play. Go figure!

Another example:
The opening of the 2nd suite:

  • On the baroque cello this sounds so very sweet with open d and a strings. You can manipulate the sound, partly because the strings are so loose. It sounds warm, intimate.
  • On the Mirecourt the open strings sound great as well, in a very different way. With steel strings the colouring is less complex, but still has a great depth. It sounds a little less haunting than on the baroque cello, partly because of the higher tuning, partly because of the greater projection and higher tension. I take a slightly faster tempo with this cello.
  • On the carbon fibre, I tend to play the opening of this suite in the 4th position with no open strings. For those who know me, this probably comes as a surprise, since it seems so against my "religion" to play the opening of this suite anywhere but on open strings. But that sounds very boring on this instrument since it allows for so little colouring on open strings. It sounds beautiful in the 4th position though.
    Vice versa is true too. Playing this opening bar on the baroque cello in the 4th position sounds choked and unhealthy. On the Mirecourt it sounds good but I personally don't like it as much.

Yet another interesting example:
The following section in the 3rd, C Major suite:

  • On the baroque cello I keep the same tempo that I started the movement with throughout this section. I take time on chord changes.
  • On the Mirecourt I gradually increase the tempo. I do keep the first three notes of every four 16th notes slurred. I get back to the Tempo Primo in bar...
  • On the carbon fibre cello this section is a breeze! It is so easy I barely have to think. I decided to separate the notes completely (so no slurs!). And I play it at lightning speed. It sound phenomenal this way, but trying this on the baroque cello sounds pathetic!

Now comes suite #4, the Prelude.

  • On the baroque cello, I use almost a whole bow for every 8th note! If I don't it sounds scratchy and squeaky. I choose quite a moderate tempo. It takes a little time to get the low notes to sound.
    It is difficult to keep the 4/4 or 2/2 feel of this movement. I remember that I got a phone call from my parents many years ago. They are both professional musicians (classical guitarists) of the highest caliber. They were listening to the 4th suite by Anner Bijlsma. Apparently they had trouble deciding what the time signature of this prelude was upon listening to it, so they called me to find out. It is true: it is so easy for the second 8th note to become so dominant that it appears to become the first beat. The listener is at a compete loss after a while.
    I found this particularly difficult on my baroque cello.
    The other thing I am struggling with this particular suite on this instrument is with is the key. The E flat major suite is difficult for cellists, partly because there are so very many extensions. Upon completing this suite the left hand is quite tired. On the baroque cello I find this even more stressful because the instrument has no endpin. It sits very straight, which is even more stressful for the hand. In addition this cello is a little big anyway.
  • On The Mirecourt this suite is much less stressful now than it used to be. With the new bridge it seems much more manageable. I can choose any tempo I like to, which is a little faster than on my baroque cello, and the instrument responds well. After the Gigue I still feel the urge to shake my left hand and loosen my muscles! I do find though, that the slight struggle which is almost inevitable with the string changes in this suite, gives it a character that I really like.
    I use a much more compact bow stroke on this instrument with this suite. The faster bow necessary on the baroque cello makes it sound airy and flaky on the Mirecourt. Even when I use a baroque bow on this cello, I use much less bow on the Mirecourt than on the baroque cello.
  • The carbon fibre cello does this suite with great ease, but almost too much so. The string changes are a non-issue. The C string speaks as easily as the a-string, so one could play this as fast as one would like. So the work I find that I create for myself is to make it sound as if it is more labourious than it actually is.

The interesting thing about this journey is that I find myself searching for some qualities of the carbon fibre cello in the baroque cello, and vice versa.
When things are too easy on the carbon fibre cello, I try to mimic the struggle I have on the baroque cello.
When I struggle on the baroque cello, I try to find ways to make it sound more like the Mirecourt or carbon fibre do.

On the other hand, I cherish some things on each instrument and use them to accentuate the qualities of that instrument, like in the prelude of the 3rd suite, where I love the speed and virtuoso sound I can get on the carbon fiber, the warmth and depth on the Mirecourt and how it gets so lyrical and slow on the baroque cello.

The excitement continues...!


  1. Josephine,

    Thank you for blogging your progress like this. It's fascinating to read, and having discovered it today via I was delighted to see you post while I was working my way through the archives :-)

    Are you playing publicly in London? I'm based there and would very much like to hear you.

    I'd also be very very interested in your thoughts on one question. I'm 5 months into learning the cello; my girlfriend (who is a period performance lover and an amateur violinist) suggested I take it up, and I've loved it so far. At the end of this year, if all is still going well, it will be time to buy my first instrument. I could afford a Luis and Clark; it would be a bit more than I think it would be wise to spend at this stage, but if they're much better to play than a similarly-priced wooden instrument... I guess my question is, for a beginner, is it better to have something that's easy to play and sounds lovely (if somewhat lacking in character) and then graduate on to something with more spirit when one has the skill to master it, or should one start with the balky, awkward but soulful wooden instrument and learn to fight one's way through its moods?

    Or is that an impossible question to answer?

    All the best,


  2. Hi Giles,

    My concert in London is not public, unfortunately. But if you could organize a concert for me on Friday evening March 28 (I perform in the afternoon at Canada House) or Saturday evening March 29 somewhere for a reasonably sized audience; I would be glad to play!

    Also, regarding the Luis and Clark carbon fibre cellos: I think it is a superb choice for a beginner cellist. They are so easy to play, very rewarding in sound and in that price range it is nearly impossible to find an instrument that equals it in playability and ease.
    Sound is very personal though. I have some students who love it and some who chose wood after all, even if it means more work, because of the sound and character.

  3. Fascinating comparison. Thanks for taking the time to write detailed notes.

  4. Josephine,

    I doubt I'll be able to get enough people together for a concert, but I'll see what I can do. Thanks for asking!

    Thanks for the thoughts on the Luis and Clark - I guess I'll have to get in touch with the makers and ask whether they have a dealer in the UK so that I can try one out side-by-side with a few wooden instruments.


  5. Josephine
    Thank you for all of the great advice.
    I have been looking for a cello that does not sound to buzzy. I know this is not a technical term but since I am new to this it is the only one I know.
    I have lived in HK and now in Germany. I have always wanted to play the cello since I was about 12 but not in a position to do so until now. I love the richness and warmness of the cello. However with the varied locations I live, I have been looking at a carbon fiber cello. I have an electric violin because in HK the cello is too big and the humidity is too high (mold inside the cello unless dehumidified constantly).
    Your comments on all of your cellos along with the analysis is outstanding.
    Is there a specific string maker you recommend?
    Thank you again