Us and Them?

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Cello By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Cello
Last updated: 09/12/2013
Tags: historical performance, historically informed performance

During my time studying with the great American cellist and pedagogue Steven Doane at the Eastman School, New York, I also became interested in Historical Performance Practice, influenced by Malcolm Bilson, Paul O'Dette & Christel Thielmann. Since returning to the UK I have had a fascinating time playing internationally in leading ensembles on both ‘period’ and ‘modern’ instruments. I've been a member of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire & English Baroque Soloists since 1996 (in repertoire from Purcell to Stravinsky, including the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage throughout 2000) and of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment since 1995, including continuo at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms. 

I have also been guest continuo with many other ‘period’ bands including Avison Ensemble, Classical Opera Company, Dunedin Consort, English Concert, Gabrieli Consort & Hanover Band, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Nicola Benedetti’s ‘Italia’ CD and with English National Opera in 2013 (Charpentier’s Medea playing bass violin), both directed by Christian Curnyn.

Although it creates many complications (having two instruments, changing pitches, swopping strings and adjusting to the balance of three different bows - 1720/1800/modern) I do find it very interesting. A chronological approach to the repertoire makes perfect sense to me : the left-hand and bow techniques simply changed and developed with the times!

I have lots of original exercises which demonstrate very flashy fingerings (using 4 in thumb position) for Boccherini, a collection of tricky 18th C orchestral and obbligato excerpts which pre-date the published books and a wealth of contemporary material about articulation, national style and how to approach recitative. When performing Bach's Passions for the first time it is easy to feel lost, dealing with figured bass and obscure notational conventions, especially if you come from a Conservatory background with an emphasis on string chamber music, as I did. The Evangelist often turns out to have been a choral scholar and therefore familiar with this world. An experienced cello colleague even asked me for a session on how to approach the recits. before accepting an engagement with a major London chamber orchestra, as she felt so uncertain about it. It really demonstrated to me that college students need to have some knowledge of Baroque and Classical style these days, in order to feel confident in this repertoire.

I have noticed that there seems to be an increasing amount of cross-over (with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the LSO for example and Sir Simon Rattle and Vladimir Juroswki directing the Orchestra of Age of Enlightenment.) The new generation of soloists are interested in historical style - Nicola Benedetti recorded her Italia album with a baroque bow, having taken lessons from Rachel Podger; Alina Ibragimova used gut strings to record the Mendelssohn concertos with OAE, as did Thomas Zehetmair and Christian Poltera to perform the Brahms Double with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.  So it's really no longer "us and them".

The great teachers of the 18th Century - Leopold Mozart, Jean-Louis Duport, Quantz etc. - are just as wise, funny, bossy and relevant now as they were in their day. Quantz reminds us cellists about how to accompany singers (don’t rush - but equally don’t embarrass them if they're running out of breath), Leopold Mozart admonishes the vanity of second rate soloists saying it's better to be a good orchestral player! and both of them stress natural phrasing and articulation on repeated quavers in a bass line, just exactly as Eli Goren used to, during inspiring quartet coaching sessions with him at the RNCM. 

So, far from confusing the player, I think the discipline imposed by approaching the repertoire chronologically - aiming for pure intonation (vibrato being used only as an ornament in 18th C.) and getting the bow to 'speak' on a gut string, within a much smaller margin of error (regarding contact point/weight/speed ratio) than on steel strings) - is actually the best teacher of all!


Catherine Rimer Cello Teacher (North London)

About The Author

I'm a friendly & imaginative cellist & teacher, with many years of experience. I offer lessons and chamber coaching to students and adult amateurs. Having studied with some great masters I have many 'pearls of wisdom' to pass on!




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