Alban Gerhardt has not played his cello for 12 days…but on the evening Arcana calls for a chat he is about to pick it up, finally.
“It’s fantastic not having played for that length of time!” he enthuses. How will he get back into the saddle? “I start off with very basic exercise, just playing open strings and long notes – nothing else really. It’s all about getting to know it again, and I play so slow that I won’t get any notes wrong or play anything false. Then tomorrow I will restart the Dvořák, which I haven’t played in a long time!”
He is referring to the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which he will perform at the Proms this year – Prom 25, to be precise, on Wednesday 3rd August at the Royal Albert Hall, where his accomplices will be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Charles Dutoit. “I definitely haven’t played the piece this year”, he confirms, “but I think I am starting next year with it a couple of times. I’m very glad to have been playing other things, otherwise you start doing crazy stuff with a piece. If you do perform something more than 50 times without a proper break the danger is you start doing those things to entertain yourself.”
As is customary with all Arcana interviews, I move on to ask the cellist if he can recall his first encounters with classical music. “Mine were pre-natal! My mother was a singer, so I heard her singing and practising, and when I was born I was crawling between the music stands. I don’t actually have any memory without music, it has been the all-dominating thing for me. My mother would sing a lot, and then the cello was the next choice, as I found I could sing with that.”
His love of the cello developed as an extension of the voice. “In my second lesson I learned how to make the music vibrate, to use vibrato, and it made so much sense to me. My mother had a natural vibrato from between the ages of three and four and I picked it up. I had a minority complex about my voice, but when I got the cello it all happened and I ran screaming through the house, I was so happy!”
Gerhardt has performed the Dvořák concerto at the Proms before, stepping in for the indisposed Heinrich Schiff in 2001. “It was a huge thrill, to be playing such a big piece on the biggest stage of all.” How will this experience be different for him? “I think by now I am so old” (he’s only 47! – Ed) “but I am very much looking forward to working with Charles Dutoit again. The stage doesn’t matter so much anymore, I find, and I don’t get inhibited or frightened. I do respect the stage more though, wherever I am. Everybody deserves a good performance wherever I am, and it shouldn’t necessarily be better just because I am at the Proms. The last time I played it was exhausting because you have to produce more sound in the Royal Albert Hall. In the last six years I have been playing with earplugs, as I used to force my sound, and that has helped enormously.”
This year the BBC Proms is focusing intently on the cello, with ten concerto performances and four premieres. Does that reflect the instrument’s popularity? “I would love to say yes, but I don’t know”, he says candidly. “There are many seasons for each of the orchestras where the violin and the piano are far more in demand. It might reflect the number of wonderful cellists there are these days, though I do find I am missing a bit, a wonderful protagonist like Mstislav Rostropovich who created works and was such a natural force for the instrument. He was not created by any PR or fancy stories, but there was a huge hunger in this guy. Now we have specialists and PR people – they are wonderful players but none are of that stature so far. It could be a couple of people standing up for the instrument, but then maybe it’s Rostropovich’s fault, that nobody has stepped up like that since him! Maybe Casals did, but there has not been anyone quite of the same stature. It feels like we are still trying to catch up.
Gerhardt has yet to record the concerto, save for a disc given away with a past issue of the BBC Music Magazine, but from the sound of things is not in a hurry to do so. “I’d like to one day, but there is no rush. It should be in the perfect setting. I don’t want to do it for the sake of it. It is such an important piece, such a symphonic work. To make it special it would have to be recorded with genius people. I think ahead of the Dvořák I have pushed for the Bach suites, but that is maybe the next thing I would love to tackle.”
And what of the considerable honour of performing the piece at the Proms? “It will always be special, the excitement is so much bigger. I believe my father played at the Proms with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960s. I think it was when Herbert von Karajan came to the Proms for the first time (this appears to have been in January 1973 according to the Proms website) and it was a very political occasion. He told me that when the oboist Lothar Koch gave the ‘A’ the whole audience hummed it! The orchestra thought it was sabotage, but then they realised the orchestra was so excited. When I was asked to the Proms around 20 years later I played Shostakovich in the late 1990s. I got frightened, but now I am excited to play for this unbelievable audience.”
He goes on to discuss the advantages of planning for the festival. “At the Proms you can schedule almost anything and people come! For instance this year Steven Isserlis is playing a new orchestral version of Thomas Adès’s Lieux retrouvés, and it is one of my standout Proms, as I love Isserlis. I am sure it will be full.” There is a note of regret, too. “I wish this could be translated into other seasons, because I think it proves you don’t always need the big names like Beethoven and Brahms to fill a hall. Music is for all seasons, not just the summer!”
Staying with the Proms theme of the cello, does he think it true to say the instrument is popular for new works? “Not so much in the last 40 years”, he says. “Not since the Rostropovich commissions. We live in times where there is a much shorter life, things expire quickly, and so to get a piece into the repertoire is impossible. This has happened with the Dutilleux concerto perhaps (Tout un monde lointain) but not since then, especially if you compare those pieces to Shostakovich and Prokofiev.”
He muses on the reasons for this. “It is difficult for a player to learn without having a pianist accompany them, and for that you need a piano reduction. People love modern music, and there is lots being written, but it’s been written, played once and then never again. Maybe that’s how it was 300 years ago, after all Bach had to write a cantata every week! It is nice to go back to a piece and rediscover it though. I have been able to do that with some contemporary pieces which is great as you can do so much more with them. With the Dvořák I can tell a story with it, and I can channel my energies so that I am not dead by the end of the first page, and can carry through the whole piece!”
What of recommending a piece of cello music to Arcana readers? “The Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly did tell me that Lieux retrouvés is a fantastic piece”, says Gerhardt, “and he thinks it is one of the greatest pieces written in the last few years. I think that is my favourite last cello recording, the one made with Isserlis and Adès themselves. I do love to go to concerts rather than stay at home and listen though, I am not a big consumer of recordings. Having said that this one is also special for the Janáček and Fauré pieces they include, it has a beautiful combination of works. They are such fantastic musicians, and at times they remind me of Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten in partnership.”
It is nearly time for Gerhardt to head home and pick up his cello. “I will summon the energy over the next six days to completely fall in love with the piece again”, he declares. “I have a complete score and will go back to basics, to look at the part without any marks on the page and look at what the composer really had in mind. Otherwise I find that I do things in the moment and repeat them. A clean score, with no markings, fingerings or bowing instructions, brings you back to the composer.”