Alban's Blog

Trains in Italy and Casals Encores

The only time I took a train in Italy I missed it because it was so punctual. Me with my German arrogance and prejudice that Italian trains must be even worse than at home just had walked too slowly to the track, and right in front of my eyes the train had disappeared. This was about five years ago. Today, when I wanted to take a train to Verona to visit a friend on my free day between the three concerts with the Verdi Orchestra in Milan, I left extra early, arrived at the train station “Cadorno” (the only one I knew) 15 minutes (!) prior to the departure only to find out that the train was leaving from the main station, 5 subway stops away. For once I was in time somewhere, and promptly I get punished.

I ran back to the subway station where I had just arrived in order to give my train a good try, but the subway ticket wasn’t valid anymore. The first machine from which I tried to buy another one didn’t accept my 5-Euro bill, the next one took its time but rewarded me with the desired item – by then the subway had just left. Four minute wait, just enough for a delicious cup of coffee from one of the machines at the platform. The five stations took exactly 6min and 30 seconds (yes, I timed it, to be prepared to run for my life – I just didn’t want to loose another train in Italy, couldn’t give the system that kind of satisfaction, not today!!). And I did run for my life – I had 3 minutes between subway stop and track No.14, and it was quite a distance, at least 600 m, up three flight of stairs. Completely out of breath I ran onto – the wrong platform, crossed the tracks where you are not supposed to cross and threw myself into the train to Venice.

As soon as I had entered the train, the doors closed and the train left? No, far from it! Now that I was in time, the train would take its time: the announcement about the 15 minute delay of the train because of some signal problems welcomed me into this very comfortable Eurocity train. Well, to make this really not too exciting story short; the fifth announcement just told us that it was now 60 minutes, which means that the five hours I would have had to visit Verona for the first time in my life melted down to four – and who knows, how much more delay there will be. Nay, my German arrogance is gone since a while, especially since we have nothing to be arrogant about regarding the German trainsystem, which is as unreliable as it gets these days.

And yes, the concerts here in Milan were rather thrilling: Wayne Marshall, the conductor, absolutely went for it in his first Dvorak concerto performance. He, in my eyes very convincingly, chose the classical approach, not having listened to recordings of the piece but just taking it from the score (there are some rather quick metronom markings!) and thus shaving already off the introduction about 1 minute. I didn’t time it, no, but I listened to a performance with Emanuel Feuermann on youtube, and the introduction was similarly swift, unusually fast, but for me as soloist it felt good, gave the piece a fresh spirit, stripped off several coatings of tradition and going for the chore.

Either the audience in Milan doesn’t listen to recordings too much or they are very open-minded, but they seemed to have enjoyed it very much, asking for even two encores each night, which is brutal, because now I have run out of my regular encores, having to prepare something else for Sunday – and as I know my luck, that time they won’t want any! 🙂

This morning I started finally preparing my next cd recording end of June in Wales; with Cecile Licad I will record an encore cd with the favorite encores of Pablo Casals, and in order to get into the right spirit and play similar notes as the old master, I did listen to his performance of these little gems, and it strikes me of how much more subtile music making has been 80 years ago. The vibrato was of much, much smaller amplitude, the tempi were much quicker, and rubato meant not just getting slower all the time, but also moving forward; feeling was not portrayed by slowing down unbearably, but at times holding the breath, at times sailing right through a nice passage without indulging oneself. Yes, there is the portamento, the slides which nowadays would sound a bit old-fashioned, but as I am thinking of my own way of performing these pieces, I come to realize that I have always been under the influence of this less exaggerated way of performing especially the so-called “sentimental” music. I am putting this word in parenthese because the way Casals and the other old cellists approach romantic music and especially encores had very little to do with false sentiments or an over-bearing sentimentality, but with so much true feelings and exquisit style that at the end of each piece you think you have just heard a masterwork. I won’t mention any names, but you can really chase me with the way some people perform romantic repertoire as if it was the soundtrack to some cheesy, slightly pornographic B-Hollywood-movie, except that this doesn’t pretend to be art…

Gosh, I think I am repeating myself, should start reading what I wrote already before write the same again, because my big problem is that I write what is in my head, and as soon as I wrote it down I forgot I had ever mentioned it. Happens to me in my private communication as well; I am sometimes shocked to find out that some people know much more about me than I could ever recall having told them – I think some part of my brain which is supposed to store the stuff I am spitting out is not working right, and some people have been even pissed at me that I obviously couldn’t remember anything. Selective memory or just Alzheimer? Laziness? Lack of Discpline? Or just pure stupidity?

Oh, now I have an idea: I worked really hard on being able to forget what I just played in a concert, in order not to get depressed about all the missed notes or just about things which didn’t work out as I wanted them to do. And maybe that was transferred to thoughts as well. Doesn’t make sense? Well, obviously everybody wants to play well during a performance, but very rarely are we really completely satisfied with what we do at any given moment (or at least me). For that not affecting the overall performance I found it very helpful to always look forward and not backwards, to not store the things which didn’t work or even worked, because that way I can enjoy the rest of the performance, and I won’t copy next time things which “worked” well and which I could use as a “trick” to please myself next time around. Whoever understood what I just wrote can be very proud of him- or herself, because I find it very hard to explain this process of what’s going on in my little brain during that process. Any questions? I am happy to answer all!


  • Nicolai

    Hallo Alban,

    herzlichen Glueckwunsch zu Deinen beiden bisherigen Konzerten mit uns und den inzwischen vier Zugaben,fantastisch der Ligeti von gestern,somit freue ich mich auf die beiden naechsten morgigen Zugaben!
    Nach Deinem Konzert spielen wir am Abend noch die Leningrader,ich glaube,die Cello-Gruppe wuerde sich sehr freuen,wenn Du wie bei Stravinsky dabei sein koenntest……

    Viel Erfolg,bis morgen,Nicolai,1.Violine

  • Bob

    It’s ironic that someone with your prodigious memory needs to develop his “fogettory”. It may be a high class problem, but no less real for that. In the words of some country western singer, “keep on keeping on”! It’s better to be on a late train than left on the track. Best wishes from DC.

  • Alban

    Thanks, Nicolai – I had a wonderful time playing the Firebird in the section (even though first stand was a bit too exposed for my taste); Leningrad Symphony I couldn’t do, was just too tired…
    Cheers, Bob, thanks for your comment, nice new word (fogettory) 🙂 Hope to see you soon…


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