Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 - Defying interpretations after 1950s

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Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 - Defying interpretations after 1950s

No one has made such an impact on the cello and the world as Mstislav Rostropovich. His enormous personality and deeply emotional interpretations are carved with a knife into the stone of the history of music. We all marvel at the changes he brought with him to the way we understand, feel and play music. Until today his interpretations of certain pieces are unsurpassed. He looked at the music with devotion and came to wonderous conclusions, sometimes unthinkable before but with his conviction and heartfelt playing, he made them possible. His teaching was based on what is written in the score, and how to understand it. With his huge heart and imagination, he passed his discoveries to the lucky students and listeners all around the world. 

I believe this is where the main fault of our profession as pedagogues lies. To pass your own experiences to future generations. However, there isn't much more that we can offer, past our own view of the masterworks and a way of our own cello playing. Certainly, it would be very hard to teach something we don't do or believe in ourselves. 

But this way of teaching presumes one thing - that somehow I or anyone else has found "the answer" to music. The answer to play a certain phrase, movement, style, or technique in a certain way. We know that is an impossible task especially with the music of the dead. With a living composer, you have the ability to get a confirmation (mostly among the lines: "something like that"). But how to know for sure, how Beethoven or Saint-Saens liked their music to be performed? And even more challenging - would they be thrilled about a new way of understanding their compositions? All those questions are impossible to answer.

So how can we indeed "interpret" and teach? The closest answer I found to this particular question is to be absolutely genuine, vulnerable and honest. But genuine based on what? As Marcel Proust postulates - is an interpretation a separate work of art, comparable to the original composition? Or we are just the vessel through which music has to come through as it would from the composer himself?

 It the view of this questions, I can only give an answer that rings true to my own personality and allows me to feel genuine playing the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto this coming Friday. I believe our interpretation has to come from the same place as it did for Slava - from looking at the score and looking inside oneself. As much as I admire the cellist, I cannot say that he definitely was a greater musician than Saint-Saens himself. Slava came to marvelous conclusions by feeling the music and understanding it. But what happens when I "validate" his conclusions and do not question them at all? Certainly, they sound beautiful, don't they? Yes, but only when he plays them, apparently.

My fundamental belief in genuine playing becomes rotten, as soon as I take upon myself believing blindly in someelse’s discovery. We should all study and get to know those discoveries, but as long as we only repeat after them we will never enter the Nirvana of the interpretation. Rostropovich students understood that, so to avoid copying their magnificent teacher and to stand out on their own, they mended and changed... his interpretations to something new. Results are visible in such degenerated cases of musical interpretation as Misha Maisky, Gidon Kremer, or Gautier Capuçon (twice removed) and many others who look at the score carefully and see what their master teachers saw and nod approvingly. I love 20th-century interpretations, however not scholarly correct they were. I genuinely enjoy listening to them. However, I dislike almost all interpretations of old music by the students of these great performers (new music is fine as the teachers and students knew composers and worked with them directly). There is also a question of changing tastes in music which won’t be discussed here.

So what can we do today? There is so much information available now thanks to the endless scholarship of people like Bilson, Bylsma, Del Mar, Levin, and Isserlis among many more. Can we willingly ignore those findings? Because lastly, who should influence our interpretation the most - our teacher, favorite performer, or a composer and everything we know about him, his time and style of playing? I believe it is the composer, and therefore my Friday interpretation will be somewhat unusual to the ears of those who heard this concerto before. However, my task will be to prove that this music has as much passion, philosophy and emotion as others claim there to be. Playing historically informed doesn't mean we can't allow emotions to take over. On the contrary! Emotions are the fabric of this concerto, but emotions that would be closer to the personality of Mr. Saint-Saens rather than Mr. Rostropovich, or anyone else alive today. 

But how can I say that? I did not meet him. I never met anyone who knew him. My answer is that I did everything I could to get to know him, through things written about him, through his own words, through his biography and through all of his compositions. Even if I'm wrong and Camille is laughing at me, this is my genuine interpretation.

So what will be so different? Not much actually. The only big difference is the tempo of the third movement taken most of the time too slowly (in 4/4, rather than Un peu moins vite, in 2/2). This way the tempo of the 16ths notes stays exactly the same as the opening of the movement. Why play it without the sobbing quality of the slower tempo and constant vibrato? I feel the beautiful moments where hairpins are written are lost in the middle of oversentimental phrasing. In a more true tempo, I have a chance to deploy a bit of rubato in those moments and "steal the passions of the listeners" to use the words of CPE Bach. I do a bunch of other small details, but I invite you to come and find out for yourself!

Also, your comments are always welcome here. 

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