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: it’s one of the greatest things ever written for the cello. To me the basic message is love, with all its disappointments and unrealised expectations. The theme is beautiful, with the building cello and piano lines that fall back into anxiety and anguish before the main theme from bar 12. It really melts my heart!
The opening pizzicato is very special, like a pulse in your head when you’re alone thinking about something that affects you deeply. If you pluck with the right-hand thumb instead of the middle finger, the sound should be warmer and darker, but some cellos don’t respond to that. For one of my cellos I use my thumb for a thicker sound, because ‘normal’ pizzicato can be too thin and bright; for the other I use my middle finger and it is dark enough.
When the melody begins in bar 5 it is as though you are waking up from your inner thoughts; the first four semiquavers (s) of bar 9 create a lot of tension, like you are screaming inside. Bars 10 and 11 are an important transition: from being twisted and tense, they carry you to the release and acceptance of bar 12.
The C sharp in bar 13 is so beautiful, after the diminuendo on the triplet. Many people find it more natural to play a crescendo with the ascending line, but Brahms wants the opposite, which goes against the grain. I love it, because a rising interval naturally indicates hope and going forward. If you couple that with a diminuendo, the effect can be quite startling. It’s almost an echo of something lost and yet still treasured. For me, this is the most beautiful theme in the piece.
In the repeat of this material from bar 48 the texture has changed, with a change of key, harmonisation and piano figuration. It is beautifully written and incredibly special. This time the resolution of the chord in bar 54 is much warmer, as though a new hope has emerged in Brahms’s heart; the triplet in bar 57, which corresponds to the triplet in bar 13, is now without diminuendo. This time it doesn’t sound like something lost – it isn’t something that has gone into the wind or memory, but something warm to take into your arms. I would play it a little louder, with a very different energy to the sound.
Density of sound
One of the most neglected topics in string playing is one of our most important tools: sound density. When I play bar 13 of the second movement, I play it softly with a diminuendo, but also with a very dense sound. I do this by moving the bow closer to the bridge, with a slow stroke and a little vibrato. In bar 56 I use more bow further from the bridge, with less pressure and more speed, so that the sound is warmer and less dense. I change the density of the sound again for the A in bar 57, as if to say that something remains unachieved, but it’s OK, because today is a beautiful day. It’s a wonderful moment.
You should be able to alter the density at one volume and within one bow. When you make a crescendo, often you have to decrease the intensity of the sound; when you make a diminuendo you have to increase it. This is something that is missing from a lot of cellists’ playing. It requires an acute awareness of sound and the ability to adapt naturally to what you are playing.
If you listen to great singers, the most important notes of a phrase are usually those with the highest density. This has to be guided by your musical instinct rather than being planned or overly logical, or it will sound unnatural. A lot of the time, students try to come up with a formula for how to phrase, but it doesn’t work. It’s like trying to use a grammar book to learn a language when the best and most interesting, and I think correct, way is to learn just by listening. Once you have a feeling for what sounds right and wrong, everything else falls into place.
A constant pulse
It can be easy to lose track of the pulse in the second movement, with the opening pizzicato and the main theme in a certain tempo, the development at a different tempo, and so on. The whole piece should be unified by one pulse, even though it is rhythmically diverse: there are semiquavers, demisemiquavers (), long lines, short phrases and so on, so this can be tricky to do. For example, it can be easy to run away with the demisemiquavers in bars 64 and 65 of the second movement. It’s OK if you tighten up the tempo a little bit here, but if you do it too much then it jumps out of the skin of the whole movement. Then again, what you do depends on your tastes.
The third movement
Now the music becomes more extroverted. Try to avoid being brash or harsh: cellists rarely get to play loudly, so when we see something like this sometimes we are very happy and start to hack away! Use good arm weight but try not to be too Beethovenian: Beethoven’s music is like having a cliff right in front of you – it’s very dramatic. Brahms’s music is more like a range of mountains that is very far away. It looks small because of the distance, but you know it’s huge, and you feel the size and weight of it.
I try to think of the groups of three quavers (e) as being played by a horn rather than a cello – that’s what’s in my head when I play. The rhythmic energy is very exciting: Brahms has off-beats playing against each other between the piano and the cello. If you play it well the audience members will be on the edges of their seats! It should wake them up from the slumber of the second movement.
From bar 59, some players lose the sense of line and forwardness needed to work with the piano part. Think of this as a phrase that is going somewhere, rather than accompanying the pianist like a drum beat.
The middle section of the movement, from the key change at bar 129, is lovely and generous, like a love song about the most beautiful things in your life. Sing it from the bottom of your heart. When you move from the A section to the B section and back again, try to think of it all as a continuation, rather than something new.
Remember to sing
Brahms’s music calls for a certain amount of warmth in the vibrato. I would keep it fairly wide but not too fast, to express emotion and colour. I think these days there is a tendency for the phrase to begin with the beginning of the bow and finish with the end. This I find quite frustrating in the younger generation of cellists. They speak with the bow, but they seem to have forgotten – or they have decided to refuse – to play cantabile. It’s very sad. If you listen to older players and compare them with what has become fashionable these days, you will hear the difference.
Music was born through the voice, so please don’t forget how to sing when you play. Cantabile, cantabile – why is it dead today? That can be my clarion call.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING