An Internet Cello Society Exclusive Interview!

Ralph Kirshbaum's career encompasses solo performance, recitals, chamber music, teaching, and recording. He has appeared as soloist with major orchestras in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Each summer, he performs in chamber music festivals throughout the world. Mr. Kirshbaum is founder and artistic director of the RNCM Manchester International Cello Festival held every two years at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, where he also teaches.

TF: You studied with Lev Aronson of the Dallas Symphony. You once said that he had a beautiful sound and right-hand technique. Was there something unique about his approach to bowing?

RK: I wouldn't say that he had a unique technique, though, perhaps because of the profound experiences he had in Europe and in the concentration camps, he really spoke with the bow. He enunciated with the bow in such a way as to speak with a sound that had great character, which is something that comes from within, not from a special technique.

TF: You also studied with Aldo Parisot. You once said that he "furthered the use of my musical imagination in a technical sense." What did you mean?

RK: We worked a lot on discovering the different colors and characters that one can draw from the cello. These are achieved by varying timing, weight distribution, bow speed, bow placement relative to the bridge, and by being able to move the left hand in a highly organized and articulate way. When you attain this technical flexibility, you have a much wider musical palette to draw from. When I went to study with him, I already had within myself many sounds and colors that were waiting for a means of expression, but I had not sufficiently mastered the technique necessary to create them, particularly with the left hand. I certainly felt, after my study with Parisot, that I was much more able to convey my musical vision.

TF: Were there certain exercises that you had to practice to attain that technique?

RK: There were probably common exercises that he gave to most of his students, but generally he used a particular exercise as it seemed pertinent to a particular problem. We didn't go through a series of codified exercises over the course of two years. If there was a piece, especially a virtuoso piece, that demanded a certain kind of clarity, like a clean shift or clean bow articulation, he would come up with tailor-made exercises to help me achieve it.

TF: Would you say that he approached music through technique? Or was it that you had a musical goal and he would help you achieve it technically?

RK: There were certain aspects of technique that were very important to him, particularly clear articulation with both the bow and left hand. He was very concerned with the character of sound and the character of phrasing that one creates in order to present a vivid performance.

TF: You once said that "cello technique has become freer due to technical demands of contemporary music." How has it become "freer?"

RK: Contemporary music requires that one be able to make huge changes in sound and character in a split second. You must be able to leap around the cello at a very rapid pace, quickly change coloration with vibrato and bowing, and vary left and right hand articulation instantaneously. One's reflexes have to be very sharp, and, like anything, the more you refine it, the more you are a master of a wide spectrum of technical issues, and hence the freer you are. This leads us to the only important consideration -- the musical statement that you're trying to make. If you are a prisoner of the limitations of your technique, you aren't really free to enunciate what you want to say musically. The demands that cellists meet in contemporary pieces have helped us all to become greater masters of our instrument. Then when we go back to playing Bach or Beethoven, we are that much more in control of the instrument and are more able to make our musical statement.

TF: You said something interesting in a recent master class. A student played the slow movement of the Haydn D major concerto, and indicated that she was trying to bring out the lines of the music, thinking in terms of musical arches with crescendi and diminuendi. You told her that she could certainly play like that, but that her approach was "very nineteenth century." Do you think that playing Haydn in a more Romantic manner is wrong?

RK: I wouldn't say that it is wrong, though I think it's inappropriate. If a great performer played it very convincingly like that, then I would accept it as his or her point of view and would probably say that the performance was very impressive. But I would still say that it's inappropriate.

TF: What makes it inappropriate?

RK: That approach wasn't a part of the musical language of Haydn and his times, which was more about purity of melody and clarity of harmony and rhythm. These things get obscured when one plays with a more Romantic approach, which uses more rhythmic license. In the classical style there is still breathing, phrasing, and shaping, but the kind of indulgence that one finds in the nineteenth century was not present in Haydn's day.

TF: Do you think that Haydn would object if he heard somebody play his music in a nineteenth century style?

RK: I didn't know Haydn well enough to answer that question! But I doubt that he, or any composer, would object to a beautiful and intelligent interpretation of his work. Similarly, I doubt that Bach or Haydn would object if they heard their music played on modern instruments. I think it is better to try to stay within the musical vocabulary of the time when a piece was written, as best we understand it.

TF: I have a few questions about your recent recording of Bach Cello Suites. First of all, it seems as if you use significantly less bow than you might use in other works by later composers. Is this true?

RK: No, not less bow, though there is a different dimension to the sound production, which is what I'm talking about in terms of nineteenth century performance practice. For example, if you take the Prelude of the Second Bach Suite, you could play the first three notes with a sustained bow. But we have learned from research on the baroque bow that there is more air involved in the stroke, so we don't sustain in the same way. The length of bow stroke is not any different than when you sustain, but you release in a different way. It has more to do with the dimension of sound production than with the quantity of bow.

TF: In the G major prelude, do you play with four notes to a bow in the beginning?

RK: No, eight.

TF: Hugo Becker used to do that, too. Why did you pick that bowing?

RK: I experimented with many bowings, as I'm sure most people do. I felt in terms of what I wanted to emphasize -- harmonic motion and the function of the oscillating notes within each harmony -- that I was freest doing it with eight notes per bow.

Bach often wrote slurs in his manuscripts to indicate that a group of notes are interrelated because they form a harmony and so forth, but he didn't necessarily mean that they should all be slurred, nor did he necessarily mean that they should all be separate. In our own musical realization of the suites, we need to enunciate the relationship of the notes and their associated groupings, which can be accomplished in many ways. In other words somebody could play the Prelude of the first suite with all separate bows and it could sound like a typewriter, or it could sound beautiful, depending on how it is executed. As long as the spirit of the music and its harmonies are conveyed, it doesn't matter which bowing is used. There isn't just one bowing. My bowing gives me the greatest freedom to express what I want to express with the prelude.

TF: Were you also going for a certain smoothness or flow in the Prelude?

RK: Well, not smoothness, because there are different points of tension and highlights within each bow, depending on where in the piece we are talking about. I continually re-evaluate and discover relationships that I want to bring out in a certain way. The Bach Suites are very much alive, which is part of their greatness.

TF: You use a lot of spiccato in your recording, particularly in the faster movements.

RK: Yes, and I've been criticized for it. There are those who say that my spiccato is not appropriate in the Suites, but I like it. What you hear in the recording is certainly a less clipped kind of spiccato than the one I used to play when I was much younger. I suppose my desire for cleanliness of articulation results in that stroke. But I'm not trying to play true spiccato. Most of the strokes spring from the string, so it's actually more of a sautill� stroke, rather than a true spiccato, which is a bouncing that starts above the string.

TF: In the third suite Prelude, you play the section with the G pedal point in a more understated way. It is often played as if it is a huge climactic section, perhaps in imitation of a booming organ. Do you not like to hear it played with a forte character?

RK: The pedal, as far as I'm concerned, speaks for itself, so I don't have to overemphasize it, since one is going to hear the G anyway. The inner moving line is what my ear is attracted to, and so I want to be sure that it is heard clearly.

TF: The interval span is almost two octaves at times in this section, which many feel is a powerful moment in the movement. Do you disagree with people who want to play it more powerfully?

RK: I wouldn't necessarily characterize it as powerful. I think I do play it 'big,' though my definition of 'big' may differ from yours. The pedal is important, but the linear motion within the harmony is equally important. Any performer is responding to what they hear with their inner ear. If they are playing bigger, but ignoring the inner motion, then they are missing something very interesting, perhaps just for the sake of being louder or maybe even bombastic. You can destabilize all sorts of things by not taking into account all that's going on within a piece, at least as far as you can understand and grasp it. If you just concentrate on one thing, sometimes you miss a lot of other things, and that's not only in Bach.

TF: In the fifth suite, you play with the normal cello tuning, instead of the scordatura tuning, as Bach originally wrote it.

RK: Yes, but I prefer the sound of the scordatura tuning. Most of my students play it with the scordatura tuning, but I learned it the other way when I was younger. The normally tuned version is so ingrained in me that I have difficulty changing to the other version without getting tied in knots. I'm afraid my choice of tunings is due more to a practical consideration than a musical one.

But having said this, if I felt that I was not serving the music well in terms of the gravity of sound, then I definitely would have made the change a long time ago. I feel that I do serve the music well. I prefer the scordatura sound, but that's not to say that the way I do it, or that the normal tuning, is detrimental to the musical language.

TF: Let's talk about trills. You do not always start trills with the note above the principal note, which many consider to be contrary to the standard performance practice in baroque music.

RK: I'm aware that I do this. There are instances where I feel that the musical line and harmonies are better served by starting on the principal note. So I don't execute trills by rote; I think about each one. Perhaps in the purest baroque sense I'm making a mistake, but it's a mistake that I gladly make.

TF: Do you like Casals' recording of the Bach Cello Suites?

RK: I grew up with his interpretations of the Bach suites and I love them, though I wouldn't play them the way that he did. They're full of character and show a profound musical understanding. But they are exaggerated in some instances, which I can accept as Casals' approach and the sound world in which he lived. They're part and parcel of his very strong point of view, which is great in its own way. But in my own study and development, I've simply come to a different point of view.

TF: What if somebody today were to play the Suites the way Casals played them? Would you object to the interpretation?

RK: If someone played like Casals, they would only be imitating Casals. And as far as I'm concerned, any imitation is a very poor substitute for the original.

TF: What if it wasn't imitation, but a genuine expression of his or her own ideas?

RK: But then it wouldn't sound like Casals.

TF: True, it wouldn't sound exactly like Casals, but there was a certain approach that Casals had, a more Romantic approach. Should people not play like that anymore?

RK: No, I don't think so. There was a tremendous freedom and sometimes an indulgence in what Casals did. But his approach is very acceptable, in the context of Casals and his time, as well as his sense of articulation and release. We live in a very different sound world and are much more knowledgeable of past sound worlds, so it would be inappropriate to regress into the late 19th century or early 20th century style of Casals. Nonetheless, freedom and spontaneity are essential ingredients to Bach interpretation.

TF: I'd like to go through a few of the major cello works and have you briefly talk about some of the common pitfalls that you see students falling into when they play them. What are some common problems you hear in student performances of the Dvorak Concerto?

RK: In first movement of the Dvorak, the second subject (m. 140) is frequently played so slowly that it completely distorts the shape of the movement. It might feel good to play it that slow and certain notes within it might feel good slower, but the architecture of the movement becomes destabilized. A similar thing often happens in the development at the A-flat section. Yes, there is a different color and atmosphere in these sections, and there has to be a feeling of suspension, but when that gets translated into playing molto adagio, then there is a problem.

TF: How about the Schumann concerto?

RK: The difficulty with the first movement is making a coherent line from sometimes very disjunctive material, and not having simply a series of vertical statements without somehow bridging the leaps and changes. The important things to achieve are a sostenuto quality and a sense of rhythmic pulse, while still breathing and enunciating phrases. If the music gets torn apart into little pieces, which often happens, then it loses the long narrative thread that is an essential element.

TF: How about Schelomo?

RK: Many times the rhythms aren't adhered to properly. People, in the name of artistic license, often rewrite the piece in a sense, which is disturbing. Yes, there is more freedom in Schelomo than in works such as the Dvorak or Schumann concerti, but one should always start with what's written before one begins the process of exaggerating rubati here and there. I've heard performers who have great magnetism and who play Schelomo very freely, perhaps beyond the norm of tasteful rubati to the point of rewriting some of the rhythms of the work. But they create a wonderful aura in the piece, which is ultimately what the piece demands.

TF: How about the Elgar Concerto?

RK: The Elgar Concerto requires a range of deep and profound emotional responses - anguish, despair, nobility, dignity, teasing hope, passion, AND reserve - that often escapes a young performer intent on making a 'big' impression. This beautiful work is tinged with sadness, pleading and asking questions more than, tentatively, declaiming answers.

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