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Understanding the Masters of Cello Playing

Jan. 14, 2014
Posted in: Cello
Understanding the Masters of Cello Playing
A look at cello masters like Fournier and Brantelid and their impact on cello playing



In an effort to widen our perspective of the technique of cello playing, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the masters that history has offered us, and how this has affected our understanding of the instrument. During your cello lessons, your teacher doesn't have to be your only inspiration and source of knowledge! These players have a plethora of knowledge to offer us, due, in part, to how well-rounded they are; technically, musically, as well as in repertoire and, of course, experience. They have greatly influenced many of our students taking cello lessons, too. Understanding the masters of cello playing involves not merely listening for enjoyment, but recognizing the overwhelming sense of ease that emanates from these players, as well as garnering as much information as possible from listening to and observing their playing. To do this, we will take a look at videos of two of my favorite cellists: the french cellist Pierre Fournier and the contemporary danish cellist, Andreas Brantelid.

First, we’ll take a look at a classic video of Fournier performing the Sarabande of Bach’s third suite in C major. A few things to look for: Pay attention to the constant, unwavering vibrato (in listening and observation) and how it contributes to a consistently moving and uninterrupted line. Watch his right arm (Fournier’s right arm has been described throughout history as “the Golden Arm”) and how it pulls evenly to the tip in double stop as well as melodic playing, and be aware of his proximity to the bridge throughout the entire piece.

While this video is a clear demonstration of remarkable ease, power, and control in technique, it is also musically brilliant. He allows the listener to hear the multiple-voice genius of Bach, translated with an intimacy that spans a very dynamic range of emotions and colors.

Next, we will look at a video of Brantelid performing the 1st mvt. of Elgar’s concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor. Some things to look for: First, notice how grounded and flat his feet are throughout the duration of the movement; it is very clear that most of his power comes from the ground up, and he is very balanced. Also, his chest cavity is open (like a singer who is projecting to the back of the hall) and his head is very often up and out, putting no tension on his back.

Similar to Fournier, the dynamic range of sound, color, intensity and emotion is extremely varied. It is very clear from this video that all of his decisions are musically driven, and no part of those decisions is hindered by technique.

One more thing: in this video Brantelid is 21 years old. To be able to perform under the pressure of a concert event such as this one at such a young age demonstrates not only a remarkable understanding of the instrument, but also an awareness of the amount of time it takes to hone one’s innate talent to the point at which it can stand up under any amount of pressure. Mastering an instrument takes time, and everyone moves at a different pace.

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