Alban's Blog

Loosing 3 kilos in 6 days just by recording Prokofiev

When I arrived last night at home in Berlin after having been gone for the week, my roommate looked at me and claimed that I had lost weight. This morning after sleeping like a child for almost 9 hours I verified her claim: 3 kilos (6,6 US pounds) in 6 days – and that without sports or dieting, just pure and utter stress. What had happened?

Well, the last week I had spent in  beautiful Bergen, Norway, in order to record for Hyperion two big concertos by Prokofiev, his op.58 “Concerto” and the more famous “Sinfonia Concertante”, both considered among the toughest pieces for cello; technically and physically that might be true. As usually I was very well taken care of by my favorite producer-team of all times, Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon, and the Bergen Philharmonic under their “chief” Andrew Litton was in splendid shape, but he schedule was grueling.We had so-called “Rehearse/Record” sessions, which means not an isolated day of rehearsals for these two 40 minute pieces of which the op.58 is practically unkown (I had never heard nor played it before) but we rehearsed a movement and then jumped into recording it. What I found especially brutal was the fact that the sessions happened each day from 10 am until 3 pm with two, three breaks in which Andrew Litton and me just listened to what we had recorded. After the session I went back to my dressing room to practise another two, three hours the next day’s movements.

Yes, it was my fault, I started to learn the concerto (again!) far too late and finished memorizing it just hours before I left to Bergen, so I had to continue “polishing” it while recording it, and I can’t tell you how much pain I had in my fingers. Probably since my studying times haven’t I played the cello as many hours as during the last week. Including my 2 hour warm-ups every morning before the sessions I probably played the cello for up to 8 hours every day, but not just some light cello-stuff but the most intense and demanding things I have ever had to work on.

The most amazing fact was that within hours I fell in love with the concerto which I hadn’t quite understood before the sessions started, and in the recording process I came to see the complex beauty of that piece. Here is the story how the two works are connected:
Prokofiev wrote his Concerto between 1933 and 1938, but after he heard Rostropovich playing it with piano he didn’t like it much. Why? Well, maybe Rostropovich hadn’t understood it either, and maybe it needed the colours of the orchestra to bring out the full beauty of this work. Nevertheless he was convinced by Rostropovich that it was too difficult anyway and that he should re-write it.

Prokofiev took the advice and not only re-wrote it (with the assistance of Rostropovich himself) but changed it so dramatically that we have now two very different pieces which use more or less the same thematic material – and strangely enough the original version is musically much more  daring and modern, much less “pleasing” than the “second” version, the Sinfonia Concertante. Prokofiev had been like Shostakovich under the attack by the Sovjet censorship for writing anti-sovjet music (too modern), which forced both of them to tune down and write a bit more pleasant than they actually felt and thought they should write. When Mike Spring from Hyperion asked me if it was worth putting both pieces on the same disc I happily agreed because I felt it was a good idea to have them back to back played by the same cellist on one disc in order for the listener to be confronted with the pain these poor Sovjet composers had to go through, trying to please audiences, performers and on top of everything the infamous censorship. The outcome are fascinating compromises and struggles and I hope so much that it will come out on this recording. When will it be out? Oh, not for another 8 months probably – these things always take time.

Except my physical and mental pain I enjoyed my time immensely. This was my first time working with Andrew Litton but we got along so well and managed to solve our artistic differences (he had done the Sinfonia Concertante a couple of times with Rostropovich, and I have a quite different view of that work than the great master…) between a couple of bottles of very nice redwine at two lovely dinners and became best of friends in no time (oh yes, eating and drinking together helps not only to become friends but also to work better together in music).

Unfortunately now I could only spend 12 hours at home, sitting right now in a train to the South of Germany for a recital with Markus Becker, playing Reger and Strauss Sonatas as well as the 5th Bachsuite – when did I practise that? This afternoon… (well, played through Strauss and Reger day before yesterday after th 4th day of recording with my poor fingers almost bleeding – the ultimate sacrifice for music, yeah!) 🙂


  • mannerist

    Sviatoslav Richter said same thing in his autograph(by Bruno Monsaingeon). When Prokofiev complete his cello concerto and show Rostropovich the work. Rostropovich insist on changing some parts, and Prokofiev follow that. Richter regetted that edition, because the first(original) was better. He criticized Rostropovich on that.

    After reading Richter’s autograph, I had been wanting to listen original version of Prokofiev’s cello concerto. And If I want some more, I can listen that version by your works. =)

    (Long time no see. I know it’s too late, but I want to say your Schuman’s cello concerto with KBS orch. and Max reger’s solo cello works(encore)in Korea was good to listen. I’m looking forward your recital in Korea, whatever you’ll bright to me(Reger, Shostakovich, Kodaly…).

  • Thomas Walter

    Cello playing really seems to be athletics 😛 buth isn’t there missing the concertino by prokofjew on that disc :D…….. You said that you practised 8 hours in your studying time; even if I tried to practise so much after ca. 4,5 hours I don’t know what to do because I have the feeling that I can’t learn more on that day? What did you do all the time in that 8 hours 😀

    Nice greets


  • Alban

    Hello mannerist – thank you for this information, I had no idea that Richter liked the original concerto better as well. I am curious how it will come out on cd.

    Hi Thomas, yes, the Concertino would have been nice to fit on that cd as well, but there wouldn’t have been more space on the disc. Oh, if you have enough material to practise and if you are critical enough with yourself (and have the endurance), you might fill 8 hours of practising with great sense, but I must admit, back then I wasn’t really half as efficient as I am nowadays.
    All best,


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