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Shmuel Ashkenasi on the art of chamber music

Shmuel Ashkenasi led the legendary Vermeer Quartet for nearly 30 years. In this interview, first published by ChamberStudio, he offers his advice to young quartet players

What are the most common problems you see with young string quartets?

Some young quartets get together too early, neglecting to develop their instrumental skills. Others develop properly on the instrument and then when they get to 25 they decide to form a quartet and they think that just because they’re good instrumentalists they will be good quartet players. That’s not the case, because they need to devote a lot of time to developing and polishing the many technical aspects of quartet playing.

It’s not wise for young musicians to devote most of their energies to the string quartet, for chamber music to be their raison d’être, while neglecting their individual practice. They should play quartets but not devote all their musical energy to chamber music.

Is there a difference in approaches between concerto and quartet playing?

There is, but I don’t think there should be, because all our Western music is chamber music. Most of the music that we play has more than one voice. Even if you play a solo piano sonata or Bach solo suites, there is an element of chamber music that needs to be respected.

You have to develop many skills when you start playing quartets, such as listening more, expressing yourself while being rhythmically flexible. There should be a lot of give and take between the principal voice player and the accompaniment. When you play with piano or orchestra it’s relatively easy because there are only two rhythmic minds, two entities, but when you have four people it gets more complicated.

You learn not to fight for what is not important and to make a distinction as to what is important for the music and what isn’t

What was the most important thing you learnt when you made the transition from solo to chamber playing?

The most important thing was discovering how not to waste time. You learn not to fight for what is not important and to make a distinction as to what is important for the music and what isn’t. You learn to mature emotionally as individuals and not simply to prefer your own suggestions over those of your colleagues, because you’re one entity. It’s healthy to disagree, but it’s not healthy to fight or to assume that everyone else’s opinion is inferior.

It’s good to put arguments in three categories. The first is that it’s not important: ‘I’m sure they’re wrong, but let them have it.’ The second is, ‘I need to fight for it because I can’t live with the movement played in this tempo or with this character.’ The third is a compromise, which is usually not good for the music. If player A thinks it should be much faster and player C thinks it should be much slower, then in the middle it will usually be just right. And with certain strokes, if one person wants it long and another wants it short, there is usually a compromise in the middle. But for more important things, such as tempos and phrasing, compromise doesn’t usually benefit the music. It’s neither this way nor that way, but wishy-washy.

Those are the things that save a lot of time. Also, rehearsals are more efficient if everyone has studied the score.

What does it mean to know the score?

It’s important to know the structure of the whole work as well as the individual movements, and to know what every instrument has and what its function is. It’s important to see freedoms such as rubato from the perspective of the whole. A work of art is a little like a building. An architect can make incredibly beautiful details – windows, staircases, doors – but when the whole thing is finished it’s hideous, because they don’t hold together as a unit. It’s vital to look at the structure as a whole and not the sum of the details.

What is the hardest part of quartet playing?

Balancing seems to be the most difficult aspect of the technical side of string quartet playing. Even some of my favourite string quartets didn’t balance properly, in my opinion. They played incredibly beautifully, in a well-structured way and very well together, but they were not always balanced.

In the past the first violinist was boss in every way. It was terribly unjust, undemocratic and unfair

50 years ago there was a movement in chamber music, particularly with string quartets, to emancipate the middle voices. They wanted equal power and opinions. With that came equal balance, but the music is not written that way. In the past the first violinist was boss in every way. It was terribly unjust, undemocratic and unfair. They got more money and decided what was played and how it was played. It worked, and there are some phenomenal quartets from this era, such as the Busch and Capet, but it was unfair. Quartets such as the Juilliard and Guarneri strove for more equality and more collective opinions rather than individual ones and they were excellent.

Today, everyone has an opinion, and sometimes there are two or three, and young quartets waste a lot of time. Sorting it out takes a lot of time and creates social problems because it’s difficult, even if you’re pure and honest, not to sabotage someone else’s opinion because you don’t relate to it. So it takes more time than having one opinion of a great musician who says this is how it will be. But that’s not just. So there are plusses and minuses of both approaches.

How does this play out musically?

Usually there is a melody or motif or principal voice and the next most important things is the bass. The middle voices are very important, but not as important. If they strive for equality you give up transparency and you don’t hear the music properly. When a pianist is a great musician the balance is good because it comes from one heart and one mind. When we have four hearts and four minds we tend to be too connected to our parts, rather than being part of the whole.

Whether or not players should express themselves individually depends on what they’re playing. In a development section where there is more than one element – you have material from the first and second subjects going against each other or with each other and both need to feature – then it’s important to play with different sounds. But if the first fiddle has the principal voice and the middle voices have an accompanying figure, it’s important that the middle voices blend. Occasionally the four voices will be equal and then you need even more transparency. You don’t always have to blend but if you’re playing the same material at the same time as someone else it’s important for one instrument not to vibrate more or use more bow, pressure or pressure-and-release.

What are the common causes of bad balance in quartets?

There are many reasons for poor balance: egotism, or people thinking, ‘It’s my part, I’ve practised it and I want to be heard.’ Sometimes it’s because of poor knowledge. Some or all of the members might not know the score, so they don’t know which is first, second and third in order of importance. Another thing is that they’re not aware that whatever is higher is heard more than what is lower. It can also be because of the register of the part within the group, or in the instrument. There is also the quality of the instruments, which doesn’t necessarily relate to price, because modern instruments that aren’t so expensive can be very penetrating. One or more of these things can contribute to poor balance. In most cases this is the biggest challenge. Intonation and ensemble are also difficult, but many groups have mastered those – only a few have mastered balance.

If the accompaniment must be wrong it is better for it to be a little too soft than a little too loud

What are the best solutions for creating a good balance?

There is no quick fix, other than a change in attitude – not to accept poor balance. That is the beginning of improving. It’s also important to know that it’s not always up to the principal voice player to play more: often it’s for the accompaniment to play less. It’s about a manner of listening differently and learning to play well as part of a collective energy, while playing your individual part well, which contributes a lot to better balance.

If the accompaniment must be wrong it is better for it to be a little too soft than a little too loud. Most pianists play with their right hand considerably louder than their left, to a fault. It’s rare a pianist plays the accompaniment covering the principal voice. If the bass line is in the cello it’s important for the cellist to know they are more important than they sometimes think they are. It’s also important to release the sound, which improves the balance.

How useful is it to record your own performances as a group?

It can be helpful if it’s done in moderation. Recordings are invariably imperfect, especially in terms of balance. If you have one microphone it usually favours one instrument. Unless you have a perfect set-up where all the instruments are equally favoured, you don’t get a true version of balance. You do hear intonation and ensemble, and those elements can be improved. But I don’t think it’s the best way to spend time. It’s a crutch. It’s more important to develop your ears so you can react in an immediate way while you’re playing, rather than sitting back and listening to a recording. But it does have some value.

There’s a great art in playing freely with the metronome

What about metronomes?

A metronome also has value and saves a lot of time. Quartets should play every movement they study at least once with a metronome. In the Vermeer Quartet we used to write down metronome marks. We were not married to them, but at least we knew what we’d agreed the day or week before, and if there was disagreement we could check, which saved a lot of time. It is helpful that the metronome is not a musical entity. It’s not emotional, and it doesn’t accelerate when it’s excited, so it tells us what we actually do mechanically. Many movements suffer with too big swings between tempos and so the metronome can help in that way. But you have to stick to the metronome otherwise there’s no point. There’s a great art in playing freely with the metronome. It doesn’t have to be that every click meets every beat, but you should meet the metronome every two or three bars.

How do you help young groups explore different characters in music?

We should become the music so if we can feel a certain character, we have already gone a long way to changing the character. The hands follow the heart. If I hear a group playing Classical music too Romantically – with a lot of expression but little grace or elegance – I give them a speech about the difference between Classical and Romantic music, and some of the characteristics that define different eras. Very often it’s successful because they understand they don’t need to do so many hysterically expressive things, but rather concentrate on elegance and refinement. And vice versa: sometimes they play Romantic music in too Classical a way, which means it’s rather boring.

A fast bow and a lot of fast hysterical vibrato are the two elements that contribute most to making the style unsuitable to classical works, as well as glissandos and tempos. In the Classical style pianissimo and fortissimo were new so they should be done very sparingly, and the difference between forte and piano should be slight.

Read about Ashkenasi’s own violin journey, including learning with Ilona Fehér and Efram Zimbalist, and his views on musicianship in this interview.

This interview was first published at ChamberStudio in April 2015.


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