<SPECIAL REPORT >
MEMORIES OF THE 1998 RNCM CELLO FESTIVAL
by TIM FINHOLT
What a wonderful cello festival! It has been a couple of weeks since I
returned, and I still catch myself daydreaming about my experience. And
how could I not, when such a galaxy of cello stars were present: Steven
Isserlis, Janos Starker, Miklos Perenyi, Natalia Gutman, Ralph Kirshbaum,
Arto Noras, Boris Pergamenschikow, Siegfried Palm, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, and
many more. To hear but one of these musicians in an evening would sustain
me, but to hear them all...!
As will be apparent in this report, I mainly went to enjoy the music and
to celebrate the cello, not as a critic. Of course, there were performances
that were eyebrow raising, but only a few. So please bear with me as I
mostly enthuse about my experience, like the closet rabid fan that I am.
The festival opened Wednesday night with a monumental cello and orchestra
concert, which was broadcast live on BBC radio: Haydn D Major Concerto
by Miklos Perenyi, a new work, "Cello Dreaming" by Peter Sculthorpe,
performed by Steven Isserlis, Shostakovich 2nd Concerto performed by Natalia
Gutman, Lutoslawski Concerto performed by Boris Pergamenschikow, and
Concerto performed by Arto Noras, all with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier,
son of you know who. Tormented by intense jet-lag, I had to leave after
the Shostakovich, but what an inspiring concert!
Perenyi played beautifully, of course, throwing in a cadenza in the last
movement of the Haydn too. I was struck by his shy, head-down demeanor
as he played. He is a master, and yet he projects a persona of gentle
shyness. I wish I had found a chance to speak with him.
"Cello Dreaming" is a piece for amplified cello and orchestra,
which I actually found to be a little repetitive, though others described
it as "evocative." Unfortunately, as the music intensified near
the end of the piece, the amplifier started squealing with feedback. The
volume was quickly turned down, but this ruined the emotional impact of
the climactic ending. After making a crack about BBC not having a decent
amplifier, on live radio that is, Isserlis opted to play the last few minutes
of the piece again, which I'm sure the composer, who was present, greatly
Natalia Gutman has made the Shostakovich concerti her own, which should
come as no surprise. She played with great power, intensity, and depth.
It was also wonderful to see a woman who has reached "master"
status, which I don't think we've seen since Jacqueline du Pré.
Siegfried Palm, honored at the festival for his lifetime of championing
contemporary music, performed in recital the next evening. There are many
pieces in his repertoire that few can play even today, since the general
knowledge of contemporary technique is still very limited. His program
included Zimmerman Solo Sonata, Penderecki Capriccio, and Hindemith Kammermusik
No. 3, op. 36 No. 2.
Particularly striking was the Penderecki, which calls for some quite remarkable
sounds from the cello. He tapped his fingers on the body of the cello,
and plucked or hammered the strings with his left hand --relatively common
effects. But I learned some new ones, like bowing on the strings below
the bridge at an EXTREME angle, which produces a rather piercing and grating
squeal, much more jarring than when one plays with a straight bow. A pleasantly
dull sound was produced by bowing on the cello's tail piece, which appeared
to be pre-rosined. With so many extreme sound effects, the audience could
not help but enjoy this piece.
Cellists Wendy Warner and Jian Wang played in a short recital. Wendy Warner
played Boellmann Variations Symphoniques, op. 23, and Martinu Variations
on a Slovak Theme with pianist Silke Avenhaus. Jian Wang played Schumann
Fantasy Pieces, and Faure Apres un Reve and Papillon with pianist Gretel
Dowdeswell. Wendy Warner played with much energy and with that trademark
Slava-esk "big sound," though her interpretations felt
which she is, of course. Jian Wang played with much passion, though his
vibrato lacked variety, employing a ubiquitous fast and warbly vibrato.
There was a gala recital on Friday evening that featured cellists Christophe
Coin, Miklos Perenyi, Steven Isserlis, Philippe Muller, Natalia Gutman,
Boris Pergamenschikow, Alban Gerhardt, and Arto Noras. With so many works,
the recital lasted 5 hours (7pm-12am), with a dinner break at 10pm. Only
the hearty stayed for the entire concert. I wasn't hearty, "only"
staying for three hours.
Miklos Perenyi performed an exceedingly difficult work for solo cello,
"Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher." Demonstrating how amazing
his performance was, the audience called him back four or five times to
show its appreciation, which is a remarkable response for a contemporary
work. It was wonderful be part of such a knowledgeable and supportive
Natalia Gutman performed the Debussy Sonata with pianist, Pascal Devoyon.
Her interpretation was very soloistic, which required tremendous flexibility
from Devoyon. She played in a heavy-handed manner, and occasionally played
the sextuplets with a very virtuosic up-bow staccato, not a style one often
hears in the Debussy Sonata, which is often played with much delicacy and
sensitivity. She then opted to play the last movement again for an encore.
Manchester was treated to another cello and orchestra concert Saturday evening
with the BBC Orchestra, conducted again by Yan Pascal Tortelier: Haydn C
Major Concerto with David Geringas, Don Quixote with Janos Starker, and
the Brahms Double with Pinchas Zukerman and Ralph Kirshbaum. David Geringas
played the Haydn unbelievably fast, and snuck in the second half of Bach's
C Major Prelude in the first movement's cadenza. All one could say was,
"Hey, why not?" Starker played the Strauss in his signature stoic
manner, not "getting excited," just the way he likes it. The
Brahms was fantastic, especially for me, since I've never heard this piece
performed live with professional soloists. What a great concert!
There were some wonderful master classes as well. The frustrating part
of the festival was that two master classes were held at once, which often
forced me to choose between two great cellists, though many would leave
one half-way through in order to hear the other. But how could I leave
in the middle of a Starker master class, for instance? See my master class
reports for specific ideas that were discussed.
Particularly memorable master classes were the ones conducted by Janos Starker,
Steven Isserlis, and Siegfried Palm. Starker was awe-inspiring in his ability
to pin-point very subtle technical problems in the students. He was in
great humor as well, at one point sliding his feet around and rapidly raising
his eyebrows, when ribbing a student for being a little too demonstrative
in his "passion." This is when he once more pulled out his quote
from Gyorgy Sebok, "Create excitement. Don't get excited."
There was an interesting performance of the Bach C minor Prelude in this
class. The cellist was a student of Ralph Kirshbaum, which reminded me
of my interview with Kirshbaum last year, when he said that he doesn't use
less bow in Bach, he just strives for a "different dimension to the
sound production." This student definitely played with a scaled-down
"dimension," in a "let the music play itself" style,
which was much to Starker's liking, and I assume approximates Kirshbaum's
own approach. I must confess that I found myself yearning for a larger
"dimension," a little more life, a little more involvement, and
a little less dainty approach. I hope that this style of Bach doesn't come
into vogue, especially in a piece in a powerful key like C minor. Or perhaps
I just need to put on my "Baroque hat."
As I listened to Starker's master class, I couldn't help but marvel at the
inspiring contribution Starker has made to the cello, and fear the huge
void that will be created when he no longer teaches. There is only one
Of course, there is only one Steven Isserlis, too. He really seems to be
on an entirely different plane from the rest of us mere mortals. I often
caught myself thinking that he channels directly from the composers. He
truly is a musical genius. And, as with many geniuses, he is very eccentric,
and occasionally lacked a certain grace when listening to the students.
At one point, when a student did something a bit unusual in the Arpeggione
Sonata, he very visibly jerked his head back, as if he was thinking, "What
the heck was that?" He is a most fascinating character to watch.
But when he demonstrated on the cello, he gazed up as if he was plugging
into Schubert, and the most gorgeous music came out.
Siegfried Palm's master class was inspiring because he showed a true love
of people and music. He immediately won me over with his Santa-like figure
and his deep but gentle laugh. At one point, when a student indicated that
she didn't understand his suggestion, he said, "I'm very sorry. It
is my fault. Let me try to explain it more clearly." What a refreshing
humility from someone of his stature.
His was the contemporary music master class. Though few if any of the audience
members had ever heard of the works performed, Siegfried Palm's enthusiasm
more than carried the class. He was very excited to hear young cellists
play contemporary music with such care and enthusiasm. He truly enjoys
contemporary music, and shared little anecdotes about the pieces that were
played, since often the works were dedicated to him.
The festival ended with another mega-recital featuring cellists Karine
Lluis Claret, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, Frans Helmerson, and Alexander Baillie.
Particularly striking was Tsutsumi's performance of the Schubert Arpeggione
Sonata and the Popper Spinning Song, with pianist Pascal Devoyon. What
struck me was the marked contrast between his style and his fellow colleague
and former teacher at Indiana University, Janos Starker. Unlike Starker,
who prefers to show off the piece, not himself, Tsutsumi was quite the showman,
all smiles with the audience. Though at times a little distracted by his
stage presence, I couldn't help but be swept up in the unanimous enjoyment
of his spirited and virtuosic performance. He demonstrated that, if the
audience likes you as a person, and you act like you are having the time
of your life, you are on the road to a thunderous applause at the end, which
he definitely earned, regardless of his "antics."
The festival ended with a classic balloon drop after the final piece was
played, and a line-up formed on stage with the many cello stars who were
present. Though relieved that I wouldn't hear another cello recital for
quite some time, I was also saddened that, like all things in life, even
this wonderful festival had to end, and that my extended cello family would