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Why togetherness is over-rated

At his masterclass on Monday, Jean-Guihen Queyras challenged the notion that playing chamber music is all about playing exactly together

Jean-Guihen cello masterclass

Jean-Guihen gave a fascinating masterclass on Monday at the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale, looking at the philosophical questions of music as well as the details. For me, the most revelatory idea he discussed, one which goes counter to everything I was ever taught as a student and in orchestral and chamber music performance, was the concept of not having to be completely together with one’s colleagues. He cited a recording of the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet in which Piatigorsky starts well before the pianist, Jacob Lateiner. The artists didn’t rerecord it, because, according to Queyras, that’s how they felt about the music. Queyras explained to the student, ‘You and the pianist shouldn’t be too civilised with one and other – you can be in conflict with the timing. Sometimes it’s important not to be together vertically. We learn rules – that we have to play together, that there are bar lines. But great artists try to push the bar lines, to look for space.’

Later, he went further: ‘There are moments in music where we’re allowed not to do anything. There are moments where we can have questions. The first time you look at a piece of music you find something, and later you find something else. We’re allowed to get lost a little bit – that’s the nature of the human condition. It starts, at some point it will finish and there are questions we can’t answer. That’s why we do art and music.’ For Queyras, Beethoven epitomises this spirit: ‘Beethoven is the master of the question, the enigma. He poses a question at the beginning, we start looking, and most of the time it will get answered.’

Queyras also gave some practical advice for the notoriously difficult first chords of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, played in the class in cello transcription. He demonstrated how he approaches the details of characterisation: ‘If I were learning the piece, the first thing I would think is how close to the sound of two natural horns I can get. I’d tune the pure thirds to get the right blend. We shouldn’t forget that music is a physical activity, a series of vibrations. There is a way to let the instrument ring and let these notes get in touch with each other.' He also discussed the paradoxes of sound production: 'The bow brings the string into vibration but unfortunately at the same time inhibits it. We’re constantly looking for a way to produce a sound and to let it leave – it’s like the philosophy of life. There’s too much of a tendency to think that more weight into the string means more sound, but you kill it that way.’

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