The Chinese cellist gives advice on how to play the middle movements of this colourful, passionate work, and calls on cellists’ capacity to play cantabile
This is one of my favourite pieces. I feel quite passionate about it! Its four movements are all rich in texture but vastly different from each other, with more diverse colours than the E minor Sonata, and emotional content that changes more rapidly and often. It spoke to me strongly and I felt comfortable with it right away, as opposed to the E minor, which at first I had struggled to understand.
Brahms tends to be played slowly and heavily, perhaps because the textures are thick and take time to unfold. It is easy for pianists in particular to play too thickly, so that it is difficult for us cellists to say anything – they fill everything with their voicing. Ask your pianist not to phrase in a way that makes the cello line redundant. Also be sure to increase your sound density so that your line cuts through.
A slower tempo does benefit this sonata because it is so passionate, but that is not always the case. Often music is not as precise as people think. No one’s ideas are frozen in time: one day Brahms would have liked his piece to be played a certain way; another day he would change his mind, as all composers do. It’s impossible to find an interpretation that is ‘correct’. If I hear someone play something unconvincingly, I tell them what I would do – not because their way is wrong, but maybe because they haven’t packaged it quite right. I try to avoid saying, ‘It should be this way.’
The second movement
The second movement is what made me fall in love with this piece…
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