I admit to watching hours of great cellists (past and present) on you tube, as they breathe life into phrases with direct string contact and adjustments of weight transfer channeled through artful bowing. Icons of string playing serve as great examples for pianists in particular, because they teach us to bridge our distance from the strings, by working with companion energy generated beyond our fingers, flowing down our arms into supple wrists without interfering tension. We are, in a sense, “bowing” through phrases without a tangible bow.
Mstislav Rostropovich, aka “Slava,” one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century, produced a musical “oneness” in his performances that is well explained in physical terms by Sejii Ozawa in the documentary, The Genius of the Cello
“His music was very connected with his body weight and ground, and in between there was a cello instrument.” (Is this framing akin to the piano?)
Naturally, the very singing tone model for string players, exists for pianists as we craft and shape lines that ebb and flow, in swells of beauty. While we have no bow, or means to create vibrato, we might enter a long note more slowly in relation to the one preceding, creating a lingering effect. Or our use of dynamics, combined with key entering delays, produce the kind of “illusion” we must experiment with in our practicing.
Cellists and their “connection” to the piano
“Slava,” Casals, and my current cellist favorite, Steven Isserlis have all shared an ongoing relationship to the piano, cultivating a love and respect for its orchestral repository. Isserlis admits to spending many daily hours at the piano in preparation for concerts, enlarging his perspective of a score whether it be chamber music, a concerto, or solo work. Poring over collaborative keyboard music, for example, affords an understanding of voicing; counterpoint; interaction between soloist and dare I say, “accompanist.”
With a solo concerto of symphonic proportion, Isserlis will read down a total orchestral score at the keyboard, noting themes and sub-themes, interludes, voicing, imitation between soloist and groups of instruments; absorbing a whole orchestral underpinning and dialog. With smaller scaled Baroque works, the harpsichord part can be “read” along with an integrated view of all instruments.
Pablo Casals started each day at the piano, playing through J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Naturally, he loved to “sing” through his renderings, shaping lines as if he was at his cello bowing them.
“Slava” exhibited virtuosity at the keyboard, both in the solo literature, and as pianist collaborator with his wife, the great soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya. (At a lengthy song recital, Rostropovich used no music.)
In an unearthed you tube treasure, the cellist, perched at the piano, analyzes the well-known J.S. Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite no. 1, tying in keyboard works of both the Baroque master, and Frederic Chopin. (Watch him ripple through the Fantasie-Impromptu with ease and dexterity) Above all, focus on his comments, translated from the Russian, as a window to his learning process.
Pianists and string players will always share a common bond that we must preserve through our solo and collaborative musical journeys. Attending concerts, listening to fine recordings, scoping out singular you tube performances all increase our awareness of what feeds our artistry at the piano.
LINK: A fascinating “Living the Classical Life” segment: Cellist, Steven Isserlis is interviewed by pianist, Zsolt Bognar.