"This is beautiful. Thanks so much for documenting the class."
- Matt Haimovitz
Matt Haimovitz’s masterclass on Beethoven and Schubert Cello Sonatas
Last October 17th, the renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz gave a very interesting masterclass at Mannes College for Music in New York City. Kind and intelligent, Mr. Haimovitz’s teaching is like that of a father. He greatly encourages students to delve more deeply into the interpretation of a piece. With a repertoire of Beethoven and Schubert Sonatas and the very warm atmosphere of the class, Haimovitz brought us back to the time of the Viennese salons.
The masterclass began with Beethoven’s Second Cello Sonata. After congratulating the young cellist, Haimovitz asked for the piano lid to be raised higher. Even though in Beethoven’s time the pianoforte was used, one has to keep in mind that the early sonatas were written for piano with the string instrument as an accompaniment. These sonatas are really brilliant by the piano part. That matter taken care of, the master turned to the cellist and said: “I begin to be a little bit tired by the vibrato through the whole piece. I wondered if you might have to think about it.” He then mentioned his experience of playing the five Beethoven Sonatas on goat strings, saying that goat strings discourage you from vibrating constantly. “Vibrating is really more of a modern operatic approach to the instrument. I think with Beethoven we remain closer to baroque; thinking more about sound production and using vibrato in a very dramatic way to outline a melodic element.” At the beginning of the sonata, the piano and cello start together, establishing the G minor tonality. Haimovitz asked the cellist to strip away the vibrato on the first note as an experiment. “Try to create the drama with your bow and the natural resonance of the instrument instead of your vibrato”, he asked. “With the first note – a fortepiano open G string – you basically establish the whole mood for the first part of the piece. You have a lot of power with the decision you make with fingerings, bowings and vibrato.” “Always ask yourself what role you are playing in relation with the piano,” he continued, “am I a melody here, am I the principal violin, am I a base line, am I doing something together with the piano or am I doing something different?” Haimovitz also asks student to pay close attention to the register, which was a constant concern for Beethoven. Role and register give a lot of information on the interpretation of the piece. Already in those early sonatas Beethoven was starting to think of the cello as a multi-voice instrument. As a pioneer of the sonata for cello and piano, Beethoven had a lot to explore in the relationship between such different instruments.
The second piece performed at the masterclass was the first movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. Here, Haimovitz asked for a more personal sound and interpretation. “To me, this sonata is autumnal.” he began. “Don’t project everything so much, try to find a more intimate mood.” By way of illustration, he explained what it is like to play an arpeggione. The arpeggione, a failed experiment of the 19th century, is a cross between a guitar and a cello, with similitudes to the viola da gamba. Haimovitz indicated that you can’t “attack” the instrument like you would a cello. You must be incredibly careful: you have to seek a flute-like, very delicate sound. That said, the master brought up the subject of the rubato, which is very interesting to think of in Schubert’s music. To him, with Schubert’s music depending on your current mood, the character of the passages and melodies can change tremendously. For instance, the ornamentations should never be mechanical. “All of them are very melodic, I would never do one the same; a little bit early, a little bit late, use your imagination.” Also, Haimovitz advised the young cellist never to lose the tension in the bow arm. “Help yourself out, it is such a scary piece for the left hand if you drop out of bow you are leaving your left hand out in the cold. It’s just terrifying. It will give you much more confidence if you are in the string and you organize what you are doing with your bow. It will help keep you grounded.”
Mr. Haimovitz introduced Beethoven’s Third Sonata – the last piece perform that afternoon – as being a seminal work for cello and piano. As for the two previous works, special attention was given to the very beginning of the piece. In the case of Beethoven’s Third Sonata, the work opens with an improvisation-like solo for the cello. To help the young cellist find the right character, Haimovitz suggested he play the solo as if he’s never heard the piece before. Alone, the cellist should play as if he was composing it. Improvisation, rubato and freer playing were recurring themes throughout the masterclass. In fact, as soon as the student was more confident and liberated in his playing, the music took on a new meaning. Later on, the master recommended he consult the original manuscript to get more hints on how to approach the music and understand the composer’s intensions. This is especially true with Beethoven whose handwriting is really eloquent. As an example, Haimovitz took bar 12, in which the piano has a descending scale. Pointing out that Beethoven wrote it over an entire line in the manuscript, he encouraged the pianist to take his time and really expand the scale. Besides consulting the manuscript, Haimovitz suggests the student look at composer’s articulations. “I encourage you to stick to Beethoven articulations”, he says. “He thought about it a lot. Beethoven is a good composer you know. He may not have played the cello but he had thought about it.” Finally Mr. Haimovitz concluded his masterclass by reminding the audience that in the end, playing sonatas is all about how two instruments come together to create a single sound while maintaining their differences and the character of their instrument. “It’s unbelievable what Beethoven has done with this piece; it’s really a historical moment for cello and piano and it’s up to you to make us notice it.”