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Conversations with the cello preselection jury


Hard on the heels of the preselection jury entrusted with choosing pianists for the 2nd round of the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition came their counterparts in cello, who spent five days in Moscow in late January selecting twenty-five 2nd-round participants from among 140 young cellists applying to take part.

The four cello preselection jury members included two from Russia, St. Petersburg-based Sergei Roldugin and David Geringas, who has long made his home in Western Europe, plus Korean Young-Chang Cho and Finn Martti Rousi. All are active and highly experienced performers and all are slated to be members of the full jury that will judge the final two rounds of the cello competition next June.

During a break from reviewing the DVDs submitted by 1st-round applicants, the jury members shared a few of their thoughts on the selection process, the competition, and the art of cello playing in general.

“What I look for is quality,” said Sergei Roldugin, “the quality of [the applicants’] training, the quality of their performances, and the quality of their instruments.” Young-Chang Cho added that so far the quality had been very high. “It’s going to be extremely difficult,” he said, “to choose just twenty-five.”

Asked to comment on the assertion by a prominent Russian cellist that , if young cellists want to understand how to play, they need to listen to the recordings by great cellists made before the 1950s, Martti Rousi replied: “Yes, it’s good to listen to those recordings when you’re young. But then you should forget about them. It’s a mistake to think that everything was better then. Each generation adds a layer of its own to our playing.”  “Still,” commented Cho, “young people need to know where we came from and to respect tradition. But they also have to keep an open mind.”

Cho went on to say that, despite “the amazing quality of cellists today, we have a problem, in that it’s very difficult in listening to an unfamiliar performance to tell who is playing. Cellists today don’t have such strong personalities as great figures of the past like [Pablo] Casals, [Gregor] Piatigorsky, and [Emanuel] Feuermann.” To which Rousi added: “The cello is so much about personality, which takes a lot of time to develop. And winning a prize at the Tchaikovsky competition is just a start in that direction.”

Do any of the applicants seem to be imitating famous cellists? “Not so far,” said Rousi. “There isn’t much of that anymore. But I suppose if you are trying to imitate someone these days, it’s likely to be [Mstislav] Rostropovich.”

There was much discussion about national schools of cello playing, and it seemed generally agreed that they don’t really exist anymore. Roldugin noted that “the ‘Russian school’ began from zero,’ with the establishment of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories in the mid-19th century and that the early teachers there were largely from Germany. Cho found that “differences can still be heard depending on the country in which a cellist has studied. What I hear is that in Russia, for instance, cellists learn to play from the heart, in Italy, with very refined taste, and in Germany, in a very ‘orderly’ way.

Roldugin discussed at some length Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra,” which every Tchaikovsky Competition finalist is required to play. Tchaikovsky wrote the work for his friend and fellow Moscow Conservatory professor, the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who proceeded to rearrange the order of the variations, omitting one of them, and to add much detail to the solo part. Fitzenhagen’s changes received the composer’s reluctant blessing and were incorporated in the published score. Only in the 1940s was Tchaikovsky’s original score finally revealed. Fitzenhagen’s version, however, is still preferred today by most cellists. At the upcoming Tchaikovsky Competition, according Roldugin, finalists are free to choose whatever edition they wish to play, including several that exist besides Tchaikovsky’s original and that of Fitzenhagen.

David Geringas noted that pianists, unlike cellists, have an enormous repertoire, with composers at their disposal like Beethoven and Chopin, each of whose works alone they can spend a lifetime exploring. The much more limited cello repertoire requires delving into music of many composers active in a variety of epochs. “Because of this,” he added, “it is very important that cellists understand the differences between epochs and look deeply into the performance style of each of them.” Geringas went on to say that in our time, because of the accessibility of scores, particularly by way of the internet, there is great interest in discovering new and different works that lie outside of the standard cello repertoire.

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