New York Times, Sunday Edition: Unleashing the Potential of the Strings: More Musicians Are Trying Period Instruments

August 30, 2013
The cellist Matt Haimovitz with a Bohemian cello from 1770. Photo by Stephen Woolf

The cellist Matt Haimovitz with a Bohemian cello from 1770. Photo by Stephen Woolf

PLAINFIELD, Mass. — On a recent sunny afternoon, Matt Haimovitz entered a carpentry workshop here that doubles as a music studio and gently pulled the door shut. The garden of the 19th-century farmhouse echoed with the shouts of children. But the newest family member was quietly leaning against the wall. It was darker than its sibling next to it and covered in pockmarks, but Mr. Haimovitz cupped his hand around its neck with loving pride: “This is my Beethoven cello.”

Mr. Haimovitz is one of the leading cellists of his generation and equally well known for his ardent interpretations of the classics as for boundary-pushing projects involving electronics and collaborations with unusual instruments. For 25 years, he has played a spectacular Goffriller cello made in 1710 that has a rich, golden sound.

But this summer, he trawled auction sites in search of a second instrument, settling on an anonymous Bohemian cello from around 1770 with generously sized f-holes and a 19th-century tailpiece. Fitted with gut strings tuned to a lower Beethoven-era A of 430 Hz, this is the instrument Mr. Haimovitz will use on Sept. 10 for a performance of the complete Beethoven sonatas, with Christopher O’Riley on fortepiano, at the International Beethoven Project’s Love 2013 festival in Chicago.

Mr. Haimovitz and Mr. O’Riley last collaborated on a recording and concert tour titled “Shuffle.Play.Listen” that tossed together music by Stravinsky and Janacek, Radiohead and Arcade Fire. The most popular YouTube video of Mr. Haimovitz is of his bow-shredding solo-cello transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” So why is Mr. Haimovitz’s conversation now peppered with the kind of period details that normally consume early-music specialists?

Plucking a string, he marveled at the rich resonance that lingered for several seconds. “I love shifting on these strings,” he enthused as he ran his finger up the yellow-brown strings, which he imports from a string maker in Italy. Its workshop, he said, is next to a slaughterhouse so that the sheep gut is processed fresh, without the need for preservatives.

“If you can control those slides, you can get all kinds of vivid portamenti,” he said referring to the left-hand shifts that, when audible, can become an expressive part of a melody. “On the steel strings, the vibrato kicks in much more, because it takes more work to get the string down on the fingerboard, and you’re sustaining more on the bow. With the gut strings, you have to let it breathe and resonate.”

Mr. Haimovitz is part of a growing number of string players who are experimenting with period instruments, even though they are not part of the early-music scene. It’s a quiet revolt against the trench wars of previous decades, when a player had to take sides: on one hand, the unreformed mainstream, playing on steel strings with modern bow; on the other, the Birkenstock-wearing early-music movement with its Baroque bows, gut strings and archaic tuning systems.

To some, those boundaries are still real, and hotly debated. The British violinist Nigel Kennedy caused a stir this summer when he laced his program notes for a Bach recital with barbs against the “so-called authentic” movement that he said had “pushed Bach into a ghetto.”

But in the United States, a growing number of musicians are drawn to the heightened expressive potential of period instruments. For centuries, instrument makers, players and composers formed a kind of circular bio-system in which technological advances and stylistic developments fed off one another. But as musicians today learn to master a repertory spanning four centuries, questions of performance practice and instrument choice become vital — and demand to be addressed anew with each concert.

On Sept. 1, Johnny Gandelsman will present a recital of works for solo violin at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, including works by Biber, Philip Glass and Bach’s Partita in D with its profoundly melancholic Chaconne. In February, Mr. Gandelsman performed that Chaconne at the Helicon Foundation in New York using — for the first time — a Baroque bow. One of the foundation’s missions is to allow musicians to try out familiar repertory with unfamiliar period instruments.

“It was as if the bow was telling me how to play the music,” said Mr. Gandelsman, who plays with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider as well as with the Silk Road Ensemble. “For years, I was experimenting with my bow hold. All that time, I was searching for something lighter, more dancey.” He found it in the gentle convex curve of the Baroque bow; the modern bow is longer, and slightly concave. The greater resonance of the gut strings also makes it easier to reveal the lower voices in Bach’s contrapuntal writing, he said, adding: “I spend a lot of my time as a musician trying things I have not been officially trained to do, whether it’s improvisation, fiddling and now, occasionally, Baroque violin. I do it because I love the music, and I want to understand how it works.”

In April, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, Carter Brey, presented the fruits of a similar journey of discovery when he performed Bach’s complete suites for unaccompanied cello on two Baroque cellos, including one with five strings. Mr. Brey, who had no exposure to period instrument playing, said he practiced four hours a day for a year in preparation for the recital at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan.

Coming to the Baroque cello after a morning of Philharmonic rehearsals with his modern setup Guadagnini always took a while to adjust. “But I’d be pining for it all day,” he said.“I had a great time overturning my habits of tempos in the Bach,” Mr. Brey said. “A lot of times, I played lighter and faster.” The gut strings, he said, “forced me to ditch my old habit of dragging and forcing the sound out and instead use little bow strokes to liberate it.”

“With the strings already being so resonant, vibrato felt, to paraphrase something George Szell once said, like pouring chocolate sauce on asparagus,” Mr. Brey said. “The bow really is the engine of expression.” It’s a lesson Mr. Brey said he now applies to his work at the Philharmonic.

For help with the unfamiliar instruments, Mr. Brey and Mr. Gandelsman turned to William Monical, a violin maker whose workshop on Staten Island has become a point of pilgrimage for period-conscious string players. “Embedded in your ear is an aesthetic of what is interesting musically, what kind of sound you’d like to make,” Mr. Monical said. “So now you go on a search to try to find an instrument that makes it easy to make that sound. You use the instrument as a vehicle to express yourself and tell the story of the music. Why use a Baroque instrument? Well, it’s going to have a slightly different timbre and different response, and the clarity of the sound and the excitement of the punctuation is going to be different.”

What makes a violin “Baroque” is, in fact, not the age of the instrument itself, but rather the setup. Strings radically inform the quality of a violin’s sound. So does the tuning — which affects the tension on the strings — and the placement of the sound post, a small vertical dowel connecting the instrument’s top and back plates.

Mr. Haimovitz and Mr. Brey obtained separate instruments for their respective Beethoven and Bach journeys because a constant fluctuation in tension can be a strain on a precious old cello.

One concert violinist who occasionally changes her strings and tuning according to repertory is Jennifer Frautschi, who plays on a Stradivari built in 1722. “When I bring the tension down, it sounds 10 times better to me,” she said. “It’s like the bouquet of a wonderful wine that unfolds: darker, more relaxed, a warmer glow.” By contrast, Mr. Gandelsman, who has perfect pitch, used modern tuning on the Baroque violin. Otherwise, he said, “I would have gone crazy.”

Ms. Frautschi said that period adjustments become most meaningful in ensemble music, especially in 19th-century chamber music. On Nov. 1, she will join the cellist Tanya Tomkins and Pedja Muzijevic on a copy of a Brahms-period fortepiano for a concert of works by Brahms and Clara and Robert Schumann in Houston. “The voicing is normally difficult in these works,” she said, but with the period setup “the music suddenly makes a lot of sense.”

But context also matters, as do audience expectations. “I would not want to play this in Carnegie Hall,” said Mr. Haimovitz of his Bohemian cello. He said he’s glad he will be playing all five Beethoven sonatas in Chicago “because I think it’s going to take two sonatas just for people’s ears to get used to the idea.”

“It’s taken me 20 years to do this — to play on gut strings and not feel like my voice has been taken away from me or like I’ve been castrated,” he said with a laugh. “But now I’m embracing the human aspect of it: how alive these strings are, and how much like breathing. It opens up for me a whole spectrum of color and possibilities.”


View at New York Times

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