Classical music: The cello takes a bow

From tree to trio, Rob Cowan celebrates every aspect of the cello's life at an international festival held in its honour
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You may not have noticed, but this is the cello's century. Roughly 80 percent of the instrument's solo repertory dates from the last hundred years, so when some of the world's finest cellists gathered together last week for the sixth Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM)'s Manchester International Cello Festival (organised in association with the BBC and held at the RNCM), they certainly weren't short of interesting pieces to play.

The week's events embraced master-classes, lectures, workshops, concerts and recitals (invariably focusing on French music), archival film of 'Great Artists from the Past', exhibitions, The Strad Cello and Bow Making Competition and an amusing, 'cello-free' late-night cabaret by Kit and the Widow. The overriding impression suggested warmth, camaraderie and a feeling of joys or problems shared. You could drop in on the venue at virtually any moment in the day and see eager students rubbing shoulders with - or casually chatting to - acknowledged masters such as Janos Starker, Zara Nelsova, Steven Issertis, Arlo Noras, Miklos Perenyi, Siegfried Palm, the extraordinary Demenga brothers and the Festival's artistic director Ralph Kirshbaum. "He's like a rabbi tending his congregation," as Nelsova put it - and with good reason.

Kirshbaum told me how the great Pierre Fournier's death had prompted the idea of a Fournier Award, which in turn led to the first Cello Festival in 1988. "Fournier wasn't the strongest person physically," he recalled, "and when I attended a recital of his in the early 1970s, he said to me, 'why do you come to hear the old Fournier?' And I replied, 'because to hear you play one note means more to me than to hear most people play thousands of notes'. When he drew his bow across the strings, something would really hit me. So what if he missed notes? Who cared? What he had to say about the piece, about what the piece means, what he brought to it - that special dimension - was still wonderful."

These words are worth quoting in full because they convey Kirshbaum's key musical priorities. "I used to give masterclasses in Switzerland with Sandor Vogh," he continued, "and I asked him if he took pleasure in the number of American students who have such wonderful technique. He immediately took exception to that remark. 'It's not true that they have wonderful techniques... they have wonderful mechanics. Technique is what you learn and grow with every day.'"

While Kirshbaum might beg to differ, Janos Starker will put you straight. A spry 73-year-old, Starker is a man with strong views - and he's still a remarkable player. "I speak about this subject all the time and try to correct a misinterpretation of the facts," he says, regarding the well- worn notion that 'old masters' have a monopoly on interpretative greatness. He blames it all on Artur Rubinstein, "who was the first to ask what had happened to yesteryear's 'greats'. However, what he forgot is that only a handful of greats appear at any one time in any particular area." The truth, according to Starker, is that nowadays there is probably more cello talent around than ever before; all that has changed is the ratio of the 'great' to the 'good'.

This year's Awards of Distinction went to Siegfried Palm and, posthumously, to cellist and teacher Raya Garbousova. Palm, who views standard repertory as his 'job' and new music as his 'hobby', still carries a torch for the creative innovations of the sixties and seventies, lunging and lingering among such fascinating scores as Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Solo Sonata and Penderecki's Capriccio. He played both at the Festival, but should Penderecki's piece really have raised a titter? "That was at the place where I play a C major chord then make a real naughty noise with the bow.... ," he said mischievously, "which means, 'be surprised by C Major'! I know that they laughed, and that speaks for the audience. I don't have that very often, but last night it happened and I was proud of them: they understood the music's humour."

At 71, Palm is more adventurous than most pop musicians half his age and his audiences adore him. He applauds the creative freedom that young composers currently enjoy. "When I meet with friends who taught with me at the Darmstadt centre for contemporary music, we might listen to a piece together; and if we don't know who wrote it, rather than ask 'is it by Mr. Smith?', we say something like 'that was Darmstadt 1978!' I am very glad that sort of thinking doesn't exist any more."

Palm is by no means unique in his promotion of modern music. Among numerous premieres at this year's Festival was Cheryl Francis-Hoad's starkly dramatic The Prophecy, played by the 1994 Fournier Award winner Rebecca Gilliver (this year's winner is Alice Neary). Gilliver, herself an ex-student of the RNCM, had challenged the composer on "some insanely fast tempos", but the performance worked well. "I enjoy trying to persuade people that listening to new music isn't really that bad," she told me. "Most usually think they're going to hate it."

Commitment is the principal key to any musician's success. At the opening concert, a grim-featured Natalia Gutman thrust hell-for-leather at Shostakovich's Second Concerto, then virtually deconstructed a student's handling of the First Concerto the next day. Would the average student find that sort of approach humiliating? "If the teacher isn't careful, you might get a bit discouraged," says Gilliver, "but you usually bounce back after a day or so and realise the good things that were said." Gutman could be seen striding the University's grounds wearing her cello like an over- size back-pack, stopping now and then to accept a gesture of gratitude. She is a genuine original.

But being original isn't enough. You have to be tough, and you also need to be humble. The young German cellist Alban Gerhardt is saddened that "the music business is all about money". He tells me that he and his wife have decided that if he ever makes a fortune, they'll donate half of it to the homeless. Gerhardt worries about the dangers of self-satisfaction. "I had a good day in London recently," he said. "My manager told me about a favourable review; I had a brand new engagement and lots of other good things happened to me. But then I started to feel proud, so when I arrived at the tube station, rather than take a cab, I decided to take the bus then walk. It was an exercise in humility; in character building."

Clearly, the Manchester International Cello Festival is about much more than playing the cello. Would it be conceivable to organise a parallel festival among, say, violinists? "The cello has the widest range," says Gerhardt's teacher Boris Pergamenschikow, "and we cellists feel all the possibilities of the tonal spectrum. The poor violinists don't have access to the lower registers. They always have to be soloists; even in string quartets, they take the most important roles. We are sometimes kings, sometimes peasants; we have to do everything between extremes - we have to learn to be more flexible."

Nelsova claims that there's more friendliness in the cello world than among any other group of instrumentalists, but although Kirshbaum takes her point, he freely confesses that in the early days of the festival "there were one or two who expressed concern about the concept, who felt they going to be judged in relation to their colleagues."

The 1998 Manchester International Cello Festival encapsulated all that is nourishing in the world of 'classical' music. Quite apart from the personalities and the playing, the teaching and the endless rounds of dialogue, there was the Cello Making Competition, with an international team of judges subjecting 48 instruments to the closest critical scrutiny - though without knowing who had made what. Competition coordinator Charles Beare earmarks some essential credentials: "fine craftsmanship, good design, good sculptural effect, good tone - in other words, the sort of instrument that's still going to be desirable in a couple of hundred years". The Bow Making Gold Medal went to Noel Burke but it seems that no-one was good enough to earn the coveted Cello Making Gold Medal, only Silver being awarded to Wolfgang Schnabi.

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