The cellist is preparing for an upcoming performance of the concerto arranged for strings. Hoffman tells the The Strad how it differs from the original orchestration

Gary Hoffman - crédit William Beaucardet - 6

Gary Hoffman © William Beaucardet

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The Schumann Cello Concerto is a piece I’ve known and played a greater part of my cello life, which is a very long time now! Of course I learnt it and performed it mostly in its original version, but throughout the years I have encountered and performed it in other versions. One was with cello orchestra, and while that had a fun and collegial aspect to it I can’t say it was totally successful: the extra weight of that many celli created, not surprisingly, a weightier texture and feel to the whole piece that didn’t seem entirely appropriate.

I once did another alternate version which was a redistribution of the wind and horn parts with far fewer players, some of those parts appearing in the strings. I thought that was successful and faithful to the piece. The great Dmitri Shostakovich actually wrote a rescoring of the orchestra part, which I’ve neither seen nor heard, so I’m of curious to know what he arrived at. I’m anxious to hear what this alternate version with strings will bring to the piece, it seems to me that the essential lyricism and autumnal character of the piece will be well served!

The string arrangement of the Schumann concerto is new to me. I anticipate is that since it will be exclusively strings, there is an increase in the intimacy of the contact between musicians. In this situation, there isn’t necessarily one person who is directing, it’s more of a shared experience. Since the piece speaks to many very personal emotions, this could benefit that aspect. At the same time, Schumann does use certain instruments in the full version in a particular way, notably the French horn, as many other composers have done writing for cello and orchestra (Dvořák comes to mind of course!) Understanding the special colour and sound character relationship between the cello and the horn needs to be taken into account in the string version in terms of finding suitable sonorities in the instruments used to take the place of those not present in the string version.

There are many technical challenges in the piece and those need to be dealt with as with any other piece of music. In this particular case the writing, as has often been said, is quite ’pianistic’, and that creates a special challenge. Some fingerings used might be unusual in other string pieces but in this work need to be explored given the unique nature of the writing. I feel everything Schumann does is musically driven and inspired, nothing is for show, and therefore for me the best approach is to find the musical meaning and shape behind everything.

It is too difficult to specify which is the best part of the piece, the whole piece is a gem, but the second movement, especially the section with sixths in the cello, is music so sublime it reaches heaven. 

Cellist Gary Hoffman will perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto arr. for String Orchestra with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on 9 February  at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, in a programme of Schubert, CPE Bach and Tchaikovsky.

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