Alban's Blog

Haydn D and the poor cellists who have to play it…

After two very tiring weeks in Sydney and Melbourne I am on my way back home for 24 hours before I jump off to Stuttgart to perform another Haydn D Major with the Stuttgart Philharmonic there. Australia is a very beautiful country indeed with lovely people living in it, and as I mentioned before, the orchestras play on the highest level of excellence. The tiring aspect of it all was that I started far too late to re-learn the Celloconcerto by Mathias Pintscher, which I had to perform (only once) in Melbourne at the Malt House. They are running there two very special weeks of modern music in front of a highly enthusiast and knowledgable audience, and I had another go at that devilishly difficult but very good Pintscher Concerto. But since I always function best with deadlines, I waited until I arrived in Sydney where I played four times the charming but dangerous Saint-Saens Concerto and practised in between the Pintscher – thus not seeing hardly anything from this famous city, except the Opera House, every day, inside out, since the orchestra plays and rehearses there.

Let down by my memory at two different places (resulting in the loss of about 10 very well-written bars 🙁 ) I wasn’t fully fulfilled with my performance yesterday in Melbourne, but at least composer (who conducted as well), audience and orchestra enjoyed it, which one should think is the main thing, but I am greedy, I want more, I want to fulfill myself…

Against my preference of staying in hotels (I can live my own rhythm, don’t have to behave and pay attention and be polite etc.) I stayed with two wonderful friends in Melbourne, Brett Dean and his wife Heather Betts (amazing artist; we visited her gallery, and even though I don’t know much about art, her paintings are incredibly powerful and touching – well, Simon Rattle hasn’t hung three of her works for nothing in his house in Berlin…). Brett is one of the leading composers of today, working hard on his new opera of which he played me some glorious arias, just hours before my performance of the Pintscher – so exciting to communicate with such creative minds and see how they live. While us performers are just reproducing folks, I am in awe with the really creative minds. Although the work with Matthias Pintscher on his “Narcissus” was hard as hell, it is always a great learning experience to do it with the composer. Shoot, we forgot to make a picture, having dinner, the four of us, Heather, Brett and Matthias Pintscher, I can’t believe I am such a moron! Had my cellphone right there, but no, missed the chance.

As I said, only 24 hours to repack and re-focus on some completely different repertoire, our beloved Haydn D Major concerto. Really beloved? Yes, in a way I can say I hold that piece dearly inspite of its difficulty; maybe that is because it was the very first concerto I ever played with orchestra (Feb 1987) and then two years later the first concerto in a professional concert of mine (Jan 1989 in Salzburg) – obviously I grew up with it since, and have I changed how I view it today? Oh yes, it is a completely different story – while romanticising it greatly 22 years ago I am trying to incorporate the knowledge of performance praxis from back then without being too dogmatic about it. Obviously, playing it with  “specialist” like Ton Koopman last February I am being challenged to go quite a long stretch away from where I started. Now with Walter Weller it will be a much more conservative approach, that is garantueed which doesn’t mean that I will go back to the origin.

Some “fill-in” for all non-cellists: what the Mozart Violinconcertos are for the violinists, is Haydn D major for the cellists: an absolute measuring stone for cello playing. For more or less every orchestra audition the Haydn D has to be performed – if a cellist picked any other classical concerto, he most probably would not get the job (unless he plays it so divine that there is nobody half as good as he is). Why? What is so special about this concerto or for that matter for this composer?

You can just show more or less anything which matters in string playing: you need to be able to do a broad variety of bow strokes (the so-called right-hand technique is crucial – without it you won’t be able to do any phrasing), you have to have a very clean and well-function left-hand (intonation is hellishly difficult in Haydn, there is nothing to hide, all in the open), you have to feel comfortable up high, and last but not least, you have to show some feeling and style for that music, a certain refinment paired with emotion, not an easy mix. Yes, I played once an audition with the Haydn, and I was sooo nervous – it is a very very difficult to play this awkward beginning and maybe two more minutes, and that’s it! You either nail it or you are out, and that is nerve-racking. To play the whole piece is much easier. OK, I was really young, maybe 19, auditioning for the European Community YOuth Orchestra which subsequently forgot to inform me of their invitation and just called me five days before the summer session was supposed to start because they wanted my measurements for the concert suits;  couldn’t do it, since I had already signed up for a Masterclass with Paul Tortelier, his last one, because he died a couple of months later 🙁

Definitely I believe that Haydn is one of the most underrated composers – especially his symphonies are incredibly witty and beautiful, and the only reason I can think of why he is being treated as rather second-rate behind Mozart and Beethoven is that he is often not being played well. Too stiff, too square, and without humour, which can kill most music, but especially Haydn. Once I attended a concert with Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharonic, maybe 16 years ago, long before Sir Simon was chief conductor, and he really went for the surprise endings in a way, that my old piano teacher, who was following the whole piece with his little pocket score, clapped too early in the middle of the last movement. He was so embarrassed, that he very carefully read his score until the very end after which he enthusiastically started clapping again – and again wrong, because the repeat sign was somehow badly printed in his score, but there was a repeat, and Rattle took it – and I am sure Rattle was happy about the early applause, because he went for it, as Haydn had intended, he wanted to tease his audience, to keep them awake, I guess.
Oops, flight is leaving in half hour, I better leave this cozy lounge here in Bangkok,
All best,

Alban

Comments

  • Michael Chen

    Absolutely agree with you Alban on the Haydn bit. From the astonishingly inventive Creation Oratorio to the “Seven Last Words of Christ “…and the kindred symphonies, piano sonatas, cello concertos, mass etc., Haydn is certainly one of the most under-appreciated, if not underrated composer. Ton Koopman was here in Boston and conducted some very delightful and spirited Haydn a couple of years back. I believe the Boston Symphony benefited from that encounter in learning about classical playing style. Simon ( Rattle ) has also been a lifelong fan of Haydn and did quite a bit of that here as well.

    Thanks for sharing the Aussie bit with us. Am I correct in remembering Brett Dean to be an ex-Berliner Philharmoniker? Rest up and on to more Haydn!

    All best,
    Michael

    Reply
  • Guido

    Agree very much so about Haydn being underrated – so much wonderful stuff by him. The Haydn D major is not one of them though – its completely anomalous to his oeuvre and would be one of his weakest works if it was actually by him (especially as it was composed in 1783). Why play it when the C major concerto is just so wonderful?

    Reply
  • Alban

    Hi Michael and Guido,
    oh yes, Brett Dean used to be violist in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and even though he left the orchestra in order to focus on his composing, he never gave up the viola and maybe plays better than ever – plays sometimes is gorgeous viola concerto himself, and the recording I have of it is magnificent!

    If the Haydn D was written by Haydn or Krafft (his principal cellist) or collaborated with doesn’t matter – it is a wonderful piece of music which just doesn’t work if it’s being played at half speed (the first movement). Ton Koopman agreed with me that the outer movements are to be seen as virtuosic show pieces, that one shouldn’t self-indulge but going for the big lines and rather feel it in a pulse of two per bar rather than eight! Have you ever heard with that kind of verve played? It becomes a much stronger piece, even though I agree, especially the Creation is much stronger – but so are many pieces by Mozart weaker than the Mass in c minor… 🙂

    Best wishes from Copenhagen Airport, 2-hour layover, soon home after 26 hours of travelling – not so bad at the end, if you think that 200 years ago they travelled about half a year from Europe to Australia!
    Alban

    Reply
  • Guido

    Not sure I have heard it playe like that no! Maybe the Feuermann version that I own will be like that – haven’t heard it in a while, but he always played stuff very fast, with the ‘larger line’ in mind.

    Reply
  • Thomas Walter

    I think that the Haydn concerto is a wonderfull piece of music and also a nice technical challenge…

    Alban, I listened to your cd with the romantic cello concertos vol. I and its great! What a pity that there is no chance to hear them in a live performance…

    Reply
  • Andrea

    Hello Mr. Gerhardt,

    I heard the 3rd movement of Haydn D on the radio around 5 years ago, it was what started my love for cello music. Now, I’m addicted. The cello has to be the most beautiful musical instrument there is.

    I see on your ‘Schedule’ link that you are coming to the Philippines on the 16th of September for a recital with the Ms. Cecile Licad, I will be filing my leave from work for that day first thing tomorrow morning. I cannot wait.

    All the best,

    Andrea

    Reply
  • David Nice

    Thanks belatedly for this! I had to do a talk on Haydn D major and Mahler 5, and with 40 minutes didn’t have much time for the concerto, so quoted your eloquent words above as to why it was so hard to play. Have also linked to this in writing it up.

    All best wishes – must check when we’re due to see you next in Blighty.

    Reply
  • Patricio

    I agree with you, Haydn in D is very difficult. I am fighting with it in the worst scenario, as you tell from your experience: an audition is near.
    I hope that I can play for a while, not only 2 minutes…time for warming a little, and make music…I hate auditions because they kill the music, they seem more like athletics competitions…Maybe the auditions should have to be as “real” concerts, but they would be too long. It’s a shame…

    Reply

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