Alban's Blog

Vibrato – Little Vibrato – No vibrato ???

Rehearsal with the WDR and Ton KoopmanSitting in trains allows me to write a bit about my performances I am playing these days. Besides quite a range in repertoire (between Jan 13 and Feb 25 I am playing the concerti by Dutilleux, Strauss, Schumann, Lalo, Haydn D, Saint-Saens No.1+2, Beethoven Triple and Dvorak) I have the rare pleasure of working during the next few days together with one of the the specialist of “authentic baroque-music-playing”, Ton Koopman – on the Haydn Concerto in D Major.But first I would like to write about my experience playing in Helsinki last week, the city which is the cradle of so many wonderful conductors and musicians of today. Yes, I was more nervous than normally, because somehow my respect for these Finns is very high. Two days before travelling north I attended the concert of one of Finnland’s finest, Sakari Oramo conducting Berlin Phil, and his Schumann 2nd Symphony was really one of the most gripping and moving peformances of any Schumann Symphony I have heard so far. The “Sturm und Drang”, which is so omni-present in his music came out beautifully without him overdoing it. In Hannu Lintu I had a similarly intense conductor for the Schumann Concerto in Helsinki and even though I haven’t dared to listen to the live-broadcast yet I felt that it was one of the better performances I have given of that piece.

Maybe it was the Helsinki radio orchestra which inspired me, maybe Hannu himself, or perhaps it had to do with me having realized a few hours before the concert that my beloved Kittel bow had a little crack at the tip, right there where it was broken years ago. I had it checked by a luthier around the corner from the hall, and he said he couldn’t guarantee that the bow would make it through the concert. Hannu recommended me not to take the risk especially since it was going to be broadcasted live on air. But since I love living on the edge (and because my substitute bow is just so far worse…), I used my poor little Kittel-bow, and maybe for the first time in my life I wasn’t afraid of the Schumann concerto at all, wasn’t thinking about the musical and technical problems which this piece poses, but my entire focus was on the bow which I didn’t want to break. My pianist Steven Osborne told me recently that performing without “wanting anything” was his dream, and I think I achieved it more or less that day; I didn’t want to play perfect, especially beautiful or special, didn’t want to please anybody, didn’t think of the radio, the audience, the critics, musicians, orchestra, conductor – no, just the bow. And it felt very liberating somehow. Will I from now on always play with the bow on the verge of falling apart? No, not to worry, but I try to find this feeling of not wanting anything except breathing and enjoying the ride.

Two days ago I had my day of punishment: after not having practised for two days (celebrating Janos’ 10th birthday – his mother was in Canada, so I had to do all the present-buying, cake-baking, food-preparing and party-planning on my own, but it’s so much more rewarding than practising…) I took the train from Berlin to Cologne, rehearsed there with a smaller version of the Cologne Radio orchestra (WDR) and Ton Koopman the Haydn for good three hours, continued to Wiesbaden to rehearse the Lalo with the local orchestra there, and at the end of the evening I could hardly feel my left arm anymore (well, tennis arm from playing Wii with Janos, my own fault, I know, and now I am paying for it…). Lalo concerto was yesterday evening in the beautiful Kurhaus in Wiesbaden, and I think we did the piece justice. It’s a tough act to pull off because it is not the world’s greatest concerto, but underneath all the clichées is hiding a very touching and fragile=introvert piece of music which we tried to bring out. The orchestra collaborated wonderfully, and conductor was young Australian Niclas Milton, great talent, good musician and fun guy to hang out with – orchestra loved him too.

But now, after all that vibrating in the Lalo I will need to cut down seriously especially after Ton Koopman took the time to work with me on articulation, phrasing and also vibrato before we rehearsed day before yesterday. Actually I think this even changed a bit the way I approached the Lalo in the end, being more aware of the amount and also size of vibrato I was using, and obviously now in the Haydn it will be much less. Ton Koopman said something very interesting which made for me even clearer what vibrato actually means. He said that he likes to do trills and ornaments on the cembalo, and he likes it a lot. But you would never dream of putting a trill on every single note – vibrato is almost the same like a trill, it is an ornament, not the general colour of the sound. The problem of many instrumentalists (including me ) is, that in the evening with the adrenalin flowing it becomes very difficult to control the vibrato the way it is meant to be. With nerves the vibrato can become faster or wider (in my case often just faster), with some people it can sound hysterically, so it is much easier to just turn it off completely. Yes, we can forbid our hands to vibrate, but this is not really musically justified. “Back then” they did vibrate, just not, as Ton said, on every single note.

Heinrich Schiff told me already in a masterclass in 1989 that one must not put the vibrato on to a piece like some spaghetti sauce, and guess what: I am still working on that, it is probably a dilemma which is very difficult to solve. As performers we must not appear as being “in control” too much, we are expected to “loose ourselves”. This sounds colder than I mean it, so I try to put it differently: we must allow the music to take us with “her” (in German music is feminin!), we shouldn’t try to dominate the music, we must become the music without getting completely carried away that our fingers do crazy stuff (like vibrating as if we put the hand into an electrical outlet). Oywey, I tell you, while writing this in the train to my dress rehearsal in Cologne which starts in 2 hours, I am getting completely excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because during yesterday’s practice it felt as if I managed to find a good balance of letting go without going crazy, of controlling my vibrato without loosing the depth of the sound nor the passion and emotion which lay in every piece of music there is, sometimes more, sometimes less.


  • Dagmar

    Yesterday I was attending your rehearsal concert in Wiesbaden and I felt the urge to tell you, how much I liked it. For me it was the first live performance of you and I was really amazed. I loved the Lalo (which for me you played like one of the world’s greatest concertos ;), but especially the Prelude of the 6th Bach Suite was so sensitive played, you barely hear from any other cellist. It’s a question for me, how one can travel so much around and play every day another concert – and especially play with such energy! And furthermore sometimes it doesn’t look as if you even do something, but your cello gets easily over the full orchestra. I think, not only your cello is brilliant, but as well your luthier (whom i’d be interested who he is) did a pretty good job, because it got always over the orchestra, and especially in the back of the hall the sound got more and more focused. (And I must tell you how much I love your C-string 😉 But of course in the end it is you who makes the sound and lets the cello sing!
    Well, I can only wish you the best for your future and hope to hear you soon again!

    (P.S. I am for one year part of the cello section in Wiesbaden and was a little upset, that I couldn’t directly play the concert with you. But in the end perhaps the joy of listening was bigger from the public than from the orchestra itself :))

  • Alban

    Hi Dagmar – what an amazing compliment. To make the Lalo sound like the world’s greatest concerto is the best thing you could have told me. Because I know it is not, but while playing I truly believe that it is one of the great pieces, and that you thought that at the same moment means that at least one person in the hall felt my enthusiasm, which is very rewarding, thank you! Yes, the C-String of my big fat Goffriller is quite something, I agree, but I think the sound of the cello has lots to do with this new position I am using behind the cello; I am holding the cello a bit diagonal, I don’t know if you realized. My left knee is supporting on the back of the cello the soundpose, which makes the cello sound much freer, warmer and bigger. You should try it, it’s quite amazing how the instruments open up. It feels awkward because suddenly the fingerboard is farther away, but one gets used to it. I think Rostropovich used to hold his cello like that, so can’t be that wrong…
    Best wishes,

  • Dagmar

    Hi, I tried this new position yesterday but must admit, that I did’t hear too much difference. Perhaps it was because I only practised in a small room and not in a concert hall. But could there be as well a relation to the difference between the sentiment as a player and as a listener from the outside? I made the experience, that a cello might sound much more different in from the outside, than I’d have thought as a player. But I think I’ll try this position for a while. It’s not that uncomfortable, but my C-string needs a special treatment, as I have little space between my bow and knee.
    When you wrote about Helsinki that you played best, when you did’t want anything at all but focused on your bow, I was reminded to one of my auditions, where I felt like doing nothing and playing tendiously, but the audience liked it so much, that I couldn’t understand, why. But perhaps it sounds much more natural, when one wants nothing. And perhaps that’s why the audience gets much easier affected.
    One last question: do you give any masterclasses, preferrably in Germany?
    My best wishes,

  • Brian Hodges


    I’m with you on the Wii Tennis. It’s so addictive, but I pay for it days later. I purposely can’t play it just before a performance. But I do love it–I’m actually getting quite good at it. ha!

    Best wishes!

  • koopman

    Koopman hat so neue Sachen aber auch nicht erzählt. Er wird ja als Barockspezialist bezeichnet, komisch, ich dachte immer Haydn sei Klassiker. Da muss ich mich wohl geirrt haben. Als super Musiker sollte man nicht auf jeden Zug aufspringen…

  • Alban

    Well, did I claim that Ton Koopman said new things? “Ton Koopman said something very interesting which made for me even clearer what vibrato actually means” – at least for me it was interesting, maybe not new, but I have never seen it from that perspective. And yes, Haydn is considered a classical composer, but if you believe that he (Koopman) was solely a Barockspezialist, then you are wrong. Ton Koopman is just a wonderful musician who brought new life into “old” pieces like the Haydn D Major and the CPE Bach symphony they did as well.
    Who is the super musician here? You might be super clever, but I would not call my collaboration as anything like “jumping onto a train” but rather taking the opportunity to learn more, even at the mature age of almost 40 years.
    I don’t find it so witty to hide behind somebody else’s name though…


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