Cellist Julian Schwarz on Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1

By Laurence Vittes

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107, was composed in 1959 for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who committed it to memory in four days and gave the premiere with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Conservatory.

It has attained mainstream popularitymore than 60 recordings fill the catalogue including five different performances by Rostropovich himself. Julian Schwarz has not recorded the concertoyetbut he performed it with the Tucson Symphony in January, and will play it twice this fall, in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In other words, he’s all pumped up for Shostakovich.

In addition to being a virtuoso cellist, Schwarz likes to interact with his audiencesto find out what they feel, what captures their attention, what stands out as “formidable.” After he finished a 30-minute Shostakovich workout in Tucson, Arizona, he returned to the stage and recounted a master class he had led at the University of Arizona earlier in the day, then played five minutes of Bach for an encore.

I connected with Julian about getting the upper hand on the concerto.

Shostakovich’s First Concerto is known for being technically challenging, as most pieces written for Rostropovich are. Just how technically difficult is it?


So much of what we do as performers is psychological. If we think a work is difficult, it will be difficult. If we convince ourselves psychologically that a work is easy, it will be easy. I always discourage students and colleagues from saying “it’s so hard!” as it subliminally convinces them, and sometimes me too! That all said, the physical stamina it takes to play this work with consistent intensity and drenching tone is substantial.

How do you prepare for the extended section of harmonics at the end of the second movement?

Confidence! It is so exposed and delicatean eerie, almost frightening duet with the celestethat any unsteadiness in the bow or break in the sound will be heard. The psychological aspect of this section is key. We must tell ourselves it is easy, and that it will go well. In performance, I make sure that my hands are at complete rest during the orchestral tutti just prior. I will have just finished playing as loudly as possible, so I need to allow the muscles to settle.

Physically speaking, I never prepare the left hand for any entrance. That is bound to fail! Too much thinking! We know where the notes are! We must trust ourselves, putting bow and left hand to string in one motion. As my mentor Joel Krosnick has said to me many times, “Just put your finger where the note is and play.” It sounds obvious, but we often lack trust in ourselves in anxious moments.

It is also important to recognize that the shape of the hand for the harmonics is the same as the traditional shape for an octave (with the thumb). Practicing octaves is a good way to practice flageolet. I also often experiment with different fingerings to make sure I have the right fit. The most obvious alternative to the traditional thumb—3 arrangement, is 1—4.


How do you make sure you’re keeping your focus on the music?

In between entrances, I listen to the celeste and make sure to feed off the duet. This puts me in the moment, as opposed to preparing my next entrance. If I choose to add a bit of vibrato, I make sure to move the entire hand position (both fingers together) so that the sound does not break. As a side note, it is important to have a real Schiedmayer celeste for this passage. As not every orchestra owns one or is willing to rent one, I have been asked for alternatives. A very soft mallet on orchestral bells (glockenspiel) works best, and is similar to Shostakovich’s desired sound. A synthesizer should never be used, as amplified sound will never fool human ears.

Can you play the piece if you or your cello have a small or even medium sound?

If a cellist has a small or medium sound, the intention of the Shostakovich can still be conveyed. The first movement includes many duets for cello and one other instrument (clarinet, horn), and the entirety of the third movement is a solo cadenza. These movements will pose little difficulty. The most troublesome spot for balance would be the climax of the second movement, when the orchestra is playing loudly as well.


There is an important additional consideration: Due to the popularity of multi-track recording, cello concerto balance has never been more of an issue for audiences. After hearing a recording where the engineer used a special mic for the cello and cranked up the volume in post-production, audiences will be expecting an unnatural balance. Even if they can hear the cello just fine, it won’t have the same presence in the balance. It is very important that when the orchestra is playing, we cellists are pumping sound as much as possible, while still maintaining sonority. It also takes a special kind of conductor, who is willing to put up his/her hand to an orchestra that is overplaying. Sometimes, just saying “a little softer here” will not suffice, and the extra step of changing a dynamic becomes necessary.

To the extent that this is a conductor’s piece, how much actual autonomy does the solo cellist have?

You are right in saying this is a conductor’s piece, as there are so many decisions that come from the conductor, but I like to think of it more as a concerto grosso with a French horn obbligato and extended solos for clarinet, violins, violas, timpani, and celeste. It’s a work that can live or die at the hands of many other players than just the cellist.

The common misconception is that the orchestra follows the soloist, but that is rarely good music-making. Matters of tempo, balance, phrasing, and pacing necessitate compromise, especially when dealing with strong musical personalities. One of the hardest aspects of being a soloist is “choosing” how I want a particular phrase to go. I can often make the case for multiple phrasings. Therefore, I appreciate when conductors have strong opinions because I can often make a case for their solutions or musical temperament. In the Shostakovich, I am especially willing to try new things at the wish of the conductor because I know that for the entire third movement cadenza I will have free reign to express myself exactly how I wish.