Finding the music's 'design' is not as simple as Pablo Casals often made it sound
The death of cellist David Soyer on Friday brought to mind Pablo Casals, who was one of his teachers. Casals also spent a lot of time encouraging young talents, which included regular visits to Soyer's favourite summertime haunt, the Marlboro Festival.
A few weeks ago, a cellist friend lent me a copy of David Blum's Casals and the Art of Interpretation (the paperback version I'm holding is from University of California Press, 1980), which lays out Casals' approach to music in seven chapters filled with anecdotes and practical instruction.
For some musicians, what Casals proposes is an intuitive process. But, for most, shaping a piece of music is a long journey, which has only begun the first time they play a piece of music in public.
I believe that, as a critic, I have to have some awareness of how much thought the musician has put into making sense of all the little black dots on the printed page. I may not agree with their interpretation, but that doesn't matter much if there's a coherent and compelling story coming from the stage.
The second chapter of the book is titled "Finding the Design." It's something both the artist and the critic have to do. As instructive as Casals is, translating his words into music is not as simple as following a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
Here's a short passage from Chapter 2:
'Variety,' Casals would say, 'is a great word -- in music as in everything; variety is a law of nature. Good music has never monotony. If it is monotonous it is our own fault if we don't play it as it has to be played .... We must give o a melody its natural life. When the simple things and natural rules that are forgotten are put in the music -- then the music comes out.
What Casals means here is balancing yin and yang -- modulation. Then stringing the modulation into the arc of a rainbow, and movement in time: "Each note is like a link in a chain -- important in itself and also as a connection between what has been and what will be."
I thought we could see how Casals' advice applies from a critic's perspective.
I chose a cello work, of course, Richard Strauss's Op. 6 Cello Sonata -- which I don't think we hear nearly enough. The opening section is particularly challenging, because most people treat it as a sort of short fanfare (we hear a similar pattern in other works by Strauss, most notably in Der Rosenkavalier). How long, exactly, is the true "phrase" of the opening measures?
The first video clip each time is from a 2003 performance by cellist Misha Maisky and Pavel Glilov. I am not a fan of their interpretation, so I've chosen some alternatives (from the limited number available on YouTube) that I think are more compelling. (I love what Duo Amets is doing, but the two French 20-somethings haven't posted more than the final movement.)
1 "Allegro con brio": Maisky and Glilov vs Aleksander Knyazev, cello, and Boris Berezovsky, piano, from a 2008 recital:
2 "Andante con moto": Maisky and Glilov vs cellist Karmen Pecar and pianist Srebrenka Poljak, from a live, 2003 recital in Zagreb:
3 "Allegro vivo": Maisky and Glilov vs Duo Amets (Claire-Lise Démettre, cello, and Antoine Moulas, piano) in the third movement: