Sunday, February 8, 2009

...and the winner is...

A much needed update on my blog is definitely required!

What have I been up to all this time?


I practiced...

and performed....

and practiced....

And performed some more...

At the end of this week I am going to Harbin in China to perform three, possibly four Bach suites on “Canada Night” as part of the opening ceremonies of the 2009 Universiade Games. This concert will sort of be the jump start of many performances; see my website for details!

In the mean time my journey with my four cellos has been an exciting one. I have grown to respect and admire the qualities in all four instruments.

I have done a few performances already, each teaching me more about what I am playing with.

Concert in Spruce Grove, Alberta. Explainations are in order.

With a project like this, audiences almost inadvertently want an answer to the question:

“which instrument is better?”

Opinions are much divided.

AND...; is “better “truly what I am searching for?!?

My personal answer to that: Not really; they are all so different, and each has its strength and weakness. And sometimes its strength can also be its weakness...

For my audiences... AH!... to be part of such discussion and clashes of opinion: excitement!!

I will share some of my experiences and findings with you.

In today’s environment we tend to relate all live performances to recordings we have. The expectation on the performer is to be “as good as the recording”.

If that is the prerequisite, the carbon fibre cello is the all round winner. It is clean, easy and fast. Everything I do on it sounds much cleaner than on any other instrument.

However: what is the sacrifice? The older instruments have character, complications, temperaments...

Have you ever listened to old recordings of master players such as cellist Pablo Casals, pianist Claudio Arrau or guitarist Andres Segovia, to name just a few? Many of those recordings were done just in one take and then never tampered with. It is difficult to listen to that today, if what you are looking for is so called “perfection”, but it sure gives us a connection to the performer and pure music does shine through. These recordings are much more like a live performance, and as a listener you feel as if you are a little bit part of the art as it was being created.

Today’s recordings are done in multiple takes, and performers take from those only the sections they like, splice parts of other takes in there and “voila”; we have the perfect recording!

There is both good and bad to this. With the old style recordings, the listener anticipates certain mistakes or out of tune sections after having listened to a recording several times. With today’s recordings, that toe-curling experience is now eliminated. You lose some of the flow though, and the sense of being part of the art. Only very few performers will still record mostly complete takes and use them in order to keep the emotion, the flow.

For the live performer this search for perfection has created a huge obstacle; we have to measure up! This too is good and bad; we have in general become much better performers because of it, but have we sacrificed some of the true art? When I listen to some very old recordings of the great cellists like Casals, Piatagorsky, Fournier, and many more, I wonder if that statement is true; are we really better players? Maybe not; those guys sure could play!

Spending some time in the practice room.

My old Mirecourt cello had his good days and his bad days.

I know that sounds funny, but it is true. Some days I will pick him up and he sounds absolutely fantastic, and thus: so do I!

Other days he sounds terrible. He will be cranky, moody, and uncooperative. And thus, I sound much like that!

I do, however, have a much stronger “relationship” with this instrument, than I do with my carbon fibre cello. On the other hand; when I get frustrated with the Mirecourt, the carbon fibre allows me to cool down, regain my confidence and does not complain. At what cost? Well, strictly technically speaking, the carbon is superior; I sacrifice character and depth. It is not the instrument for every day. But if I am cranky or just PMS-ing: give me the carbon!

For the Mirecourt, I also make sure I create the “ideal” environment for him: I try to keep the humidity around 50% and check temperature and barometric pressure, so I can adjust anything at any time.

On a stage, the instrument will do what it feels like doing anyway. If I haven’t played him enough he’ll get back at me and misbehave, or reward me when I have spent a lot of time together with him in the practice room.

Did you notice how I refer to this cello as “him”? It has been like that from the moment I got him and I have never had that with any other instrument, except briefly with a cello from California maker Andrew Carruthers. Had I not been so attached to this cello it would have become my companion for sure. I still think about that cello....

The baroque cello is an entirely different beast. It is much less predictable...yet!

The gut strings do not help either. The strings are made out of sheep gut and are extremely sensitive to temperature or barometric pressure changes. If it is not “just right” they will squeak and squawk. I have come to like this cello a lot; it is so warm and the bass is deep and resonant.

Tuning the baroque instruments frequently during performance.

In Bach’s time the expectations on the instruments were very different than today. Of course some of the very best instruments ever were created around that time, but most of the time many of the instruments were kept in less than ideal situations: too dry, too humid, usually cold and damp in the winter, kept in unheated rooms and then suddenly brought into a space heated by a fireplace. ..You can imagine the stress on the instruments. Many string instruments were cracked and had open seams, altering their sound and response enormously.

The gut strings broke frequently and musicians, poor as they often were, could not afford to buy new strings so they would just tie a knot in the string, even if it were in the middle of the string. Because of this, the instruments were also much more out of tune so larger orchestras emerged, since being out of tune was less noticeable in the larger ensemble.

Gut strings tend to get false quickly. This either means changing strings very regular (which is very expensive!), or live with it and change strings only a few weeks prior to important concerts. This gives the strings just enough time to allow them to stretch and reach their maximum sound quality, not long enough for them to become false again.

To the modern ear, many baroque string instruments sound indeed a little out of tune if they are not part of a larger ensemble. To our ear they also sound quite soft.

Because the neck is set in at a straighter angle, their bass bar is shorter, they are tuned at A415 rather than A440 and for many other technical reasons I won’t discuss here (Google it, if you are interested) they project much less than their contemporary brothers. It does, however, gives us a glimpse into the era that Bach wrote it in and the type of instrument he had in mind.

But how far do we want to go in trying to reproduce that?

This is exactly the issue that this whole project is about.

And I don’t want to commit to an answer, since I change my mind just about every fifteen minutes!!

The baroque instrument has its limitations to modern performers and audiences. But at the same time it has huge advantages, if you are open to it.

If, as an audience, you are willing to put aside your perfectionism, your need for extreme clarity in sound and are willing to open your mind and replace all of the above with character, colour and intimacy, then you will find it a very rewarding experience to listen to period performances.

The words “period performance” opens an entirely different can of worms... This will be a future blog entry!

I feel that I have very strong opinions about how a Bach suite ought to be performed. I either agree or disagree; seldom do I find myself neutral.

I do want to mention that I disagree that one should approach Bach the same way one approaches Brahms or Shostakovich. That does not mean you should get too fundamentalist about it though. I will discuss this in more detail a future blog entry.

This whole project so far has been a humbling experience. Because... I am such a different player with each instrument! And while I find I have a strong opinion about performance practice, I have to compromise somewhat, depending on the instrument I play. And to my own surprise, I can’t say that I prefer one over the other; it is just very different! I do sometimes feel strongly that I prefer one cello, but the next day I change my mind again. In general I find that, even during a performance, every time I change from one instrument to the next, the previous instrument sounded much better to me than the next one. As I am playing it and get used to it, I find that the instrument I play right now is always the best one though!

Generalizing quite a bit;

The carbon fibre is a great instrument to show off virtuosity.

With the baroque cello and the Mirecourt cello, I can move people with expression and sensitivity.

This just means I end up working very hard to get that expression out of the carbon fibre cello and the virtuosity out of the Mirecourt. They all teach me to become a better player and... it keeps me humble!

Like I have said before; I find myself searching for some qualities of the carbon fibre cello in the baroque cello, and vice versa. In addition, I cherish some things on each instrument and use them to accentuate the qualities of that instrument.

I will try to explain it through a few examples out of the suites (I repeat myself a little from previous blog entries):

Example 1:

The fingering choice is different depending on the instrument:

Prelude to 2nd suite, opening bars; d-f-a:

· Open strings are very nice on the baroque cello. The a-string sounds warm, mellow and resonates just right.

· This fingering is OK, but a little harsh on the Mirecourt, so I prefer to play an open d and a stopped a.

· Open strings are just unacceptable on the Carbon I have to play a stopped d and a, or it sounds just silly.

Is one “better”?? Not persé; just very different!

Example 2:

Tempo choice is very different, depending on the instrument as well:

Bars 45 to 61 in Prelude of the third suite:

· Nice on baroque, but slower and obviously difficult. On this cello the pedal point sounds very mellow and actually very nice; easy to control; it will not “bark” at you when you play it and stands out just enough to not be obnoxious.

· Quite easy on Mirecourt. The pedal point is still nice, but much harder to control.

· Super easy on Carbon. The pedal point stands out almost too much if you don’t control it. But then again: at this speed it will be over before you know it!

Is one “better”?? Not persé; just very different!

Example 3:

Expression is very different.

The Sarabande of the 5th suite:

· Very slow and haunting on the baroque cello. The gut strings demand time and effort.

· A little less slow on the Mirecourt. The steel strings respond quickly. To play it as slow as on the baroque cello would sound very artificial.

· Very different on the Carbon. This instrument responds almost too easy for the expression that I am looking for. I need to pull out a whole new series of “tricks” to try to mimic the emotional effect the piece had on the baroque cello.

Is one “better”?? Not persé; just very different!

The 6th suite.

Now we are comparing 3 instruments against one; the piccolo. And the winner is....

Yes: this suite is brutally difficult on a 4 string instrument; forcing the cellist to go way up on the fingerboard and execute nearly impossible double stops.

It is close to impossible on a baroque cello, since its fingerboard is much shorter than that of a modern cello, and thus forces the cellist to play past the end of the fingerboard: pretty nasty sounding!

On the modern instruments it is slightly easier, but inconvenient (although I found that I can play it better on a four string now that I know it so intimately on the 5-strings: it has taught me to think about fingering quite differently!)

On the piccolo you could almost say it is “easy” (I said almost; it is not an easy suite by any stretch of the imagination!).

With the 5th string you rarely venture above the 4th position.

Of course the 5 strings pose their own challenges. Initially the fact that you now have the d string sitting on the highest point of the bridge poses some right hand confusion and unintended double stops. In addition, the fact that the instrument is quite a bit smaller and you have 5 string very close together is challenging for intonation. But once you get past that, it is pure bliss! I don’t understand why not every cello has 5 strings; it would make our life so much easier!!

This piccolo cello is a baroque instrument. But because it is so much smaller and so different than all the others, I find that I don’t compare it as much. It just has its own place, without competition, where the other three instruments truly behave as competitors!


  1. I just stumbled upon your wonderful blog! I am a beginning cello student and I'm just beginning to work on the Bach suites. Quite a challenge! I've also been considering a better cello for myself and have been looking at the Jay Haide cellos. It sounds like you are quite happy with yours. A string shop near me in Seattle, "poo-pooed" the Jay Haides, telling me that they were all prone to developing cracks within the first year! Have you had such issues with yours? The model I am considering is call the l'ancienne Ruggiero.

    Thanks so much for the wonderful cello blog!

  2. I am very happy with my Jay Haide cellos.
    They have not cracked, warped or done anything I don't want them to do. Considering that I brought them to an extremely dry climate; that usually spells disaster.
    I do take good care of them though, storing them inside a case with a stretto humidifying system when I am not playing them. That is just common sense in this climate though and something that you don't have to worry about when you live in a more humid climate.

  3. I hope to hear from you. I, too,have a performing piccolo cello, have performed most of the repertoire, including a Couperin Concerto (partly the basis for Pieces en Concert). I am also a piano technician, so I get into different tunings. Another wrinkle!
    I hope to do a 4-cello concert as well, but with an electric, modern, stroh, and piccolo set! (not all Bach)!
    Michael Meade, professor Manhattanville College (NY)