By Inge Kjemtrup | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
What, exactly, is so significant about the year 1883 that cellist Christoph Croisé would choose it as an album title? A random sampling of notable events: the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic, painter Édouard Manet died, and Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted, causing a volcanic winter (the colorful striped background of Edvard Munch’s The Scream is said to depict the post-Krakatoa skies).
It turns out that these events of that year have absolutely nothing to do with the title of the recording, which features sonatas by Edvard Grieg and Richard Strauss, and the sublime Élégie by Gabriel Fauré. The answer, Croisé tells me via a Zoom call from his home in Berlin, is far more prosaic: the Strauss and Grieg sonatas were both written in 1883, while the Élégie was premiered in that year. Mystery solved? The longer explanation is that Croisé and pianist Oxana Shevchenko had been performing the Grieg and Strauss, feeling that these two sonatas were somewhat neglected. Only later did they pick up on the coincidence of composition date.
Croisé does not come from a family of professional musicians, unlike Strauss, whose father, Franz Joseph Strauss, was a virtuoso horn player and composer. Croisé was born in Germany to a chemist mother and an engineer father, both amateur musicians, and they moved to Switzerland when Croisé was an infant.
He participated in recorder classes at school but wanted “to do something different,” he says. “My parents both played violin, so I tried that for a week. My sister and her best friend tried to play teacher, and I was their student, and that wasn’t so fun! On top of that, I didn’t like standing up while practicing. I was getting incredibly exhausted after five minutes. I asked my mom, what is are the instruments where I could sit? Cello was an option, piano was an option, but my mom told me, you can’t play in the orchestra with the piano. So it turned out to be a cello.” There was also a short-lived family quartet with a sister. “It got too tense,” he says with a laugh.
Katharina Kühne, whose father taught Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff, was Croisé’s first teacher. “She was lovely!” He recalls his first performance in one of her classes: “I was of course super nervous and couldn’t play at all. I had to stop like three times. But I really enjoyed it somehow. And, one year after I started, I said, I’m going to become a cellist.”
Croisé made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 17 after winning the IBLA Foundation Grand Prize. This was followed by what sounds like a whirlwind tour of the United States, from North Dakota to
Mississippi, West Virginia to Georgia. “I had never been to America, and it was a really super-exciting experience.”
At 20, he moved to Berlin to study with Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt. Now 30, Croisé cites among his career highlights so far performances with cellist/conductor Michael Sanderling, violinist Andrey Baranov (“the sound that he creates on the violin is really incredible”), and pianist Alexander Panfilov, as well as his regular chamber music partner, Shevchenko, with whom he’s been performing since 2014.
1883 opens with the three-movement Strauss sonata, his Op. 6. It’s hard to believe that Strauss was only 19 when he wrote the sonata he dedicated to Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan. “In that second movement, everything that comes later in his masterworks, Der Rosenkavalier and Alpine Symphony, is already there,” marvels Croisé.
The Grieg sonata is full to the brim with the Norwegian composer’s distinctive style, with its borrowings from his other works. Yet, surprisingly, “Grieg apparently was not so fond of the sonata,” says Croisé. “And I don’t know why. I mean, it’s excellent.” Perhaps, Croisé muses, the first performance didn’t satisfy Grieg and caused him to give it short shrift.
Croisé has some sympathy for Grieg, perhaps because he himself is a composer. “What was really a game changer was the pandemic because I had all the time in the world. I started to write music, I would say, much more seriously. Since 2020, it’s been a much more consistent thing in my life, and I’ve really taken time for it and also started understanding how much time it takes.”
To sidestep the problem of poor interpretation that may or may not have plagued Grieg, Croisé performs most of his own works. “I’m writing my first symphony at the moment, and I want to conduct it myself. I swore in the beginning that I would only play my own pieces on the cello, but I’ve tried to make it up here by studying conducting so that I can still be performing my pieces.” The symphony is called the Berlin Suite. “It’s literally about Berlin in the last and this century, because historically a lot has happened, and musically too.”
I ask Croisé if being a composer gives him a different perspective on playing the music of others. “When you write your own music, you immediately find out that it is impossible to write down the music exactly as you imagine it.” We talk about how some composers (Mahler comes to mind) believe that by putting detailed directions in the score, a performer will unavoidably play the music exactly as its creator wanted. But Croisé thinks that’s impossible. “When, let’s say, we play my chamber music pieces, I just say, ‘I do this, so do that.’ And then we figure it out, but you cannot find it out from the score, from the music, because it’s too much to write into it, you know? You just do it. You make the music.”
“It gives me a much stronger satisfaction playing my own pieces,” he says. “It’s somehow different than playing other composers’ pieces. My mantra for writing music is it doesn’t have to be a masterwork ever. I’m writing music just to put my emotions and my feelings on paper, and it is what it is. At least that’s what I’m trying. And it’s for me personally; it’s almost like therapy.”
Croisé’s compositional influences are wide-ranging, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Romani musicians Taraf de Haïdouks, jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, techno music (including Jeff “The Wizard” Mills from Detroit), and the Swiss-born, New York–based composer Daniel Schnyder, who Croisé re-gards as a mentor.
In 1880, Fauré composed the piece that would eventually be known as Élégie. He was apparently unsatisfied with its potential as the centerpiece of a sonata, and in 1883, the piece was first performed as the standalone Élégie, Op. 24. “It’s one of the most popular pieces for cello and piano, along with Après un rêve and The Swan,” Croisé says. “I think this is because the cello brings out what you want as a listener, with just the cello singing, with these long lines. It’s holistically written and emotionally very effective as well.”
I ask him what he’d advise other cellists playing this well-known piece. “The theme comes three times, and every time it’s indicated in a different way,” he says. “You can show that the first time—it’s the strongest; it’s the beginning. The second time, it’s softer, and then the third time, it’s special, it’s pianissimo. It’s simple in a fantastic way, the same as the Grieg sonata. Somehow when you say it’s simple, it comes across as something negative. But I don’t think that. In the Baroque, to write a slow movement was the highest art.
“Of course, there are technical challenges, especially for the cellist in all these cantilena [lullaby-like] pieces. You must play good legato and have a good vibrato. All the basics of cello playing come out, and they’re audible.
“The same thing for the second movements in the Grieg and Strauss. The biggest challenge, apart from the technical and musical requirements, is to find the right vibe. Strauss is, in my opinion, very much a composer where you need to feel how he felt his music. It’s sort of a traditional Bavarian vibe, a little bit playful and charming. Like a Ländler, but also then not.
“Getting the right character, the right mood, is vital, and the same with the rhythms. In the first theme of the Strauss, for example, after the opening, it is almost a little bit like opera, like Rosenkavalier coming out already. It shows a little bit with the rhythm as well as with the agogic accents.”
A cellist working on any of the pieces on this album might want to make close study of the warm, burnished tone Croisé produces throughout. Since 2018, Croisé has been playing an Italian cello from 1680. “It is not a hundred percent known who built it, but it has an original Bergonzi label,” he says.
As for his choice of bows—well, that seems to be a moveable feast. Croisé mentions a 19th-century bow he’s played recently, from “1880, something like that.” Wouldn’t it be perfect if the bow was actually from 1883? I ask mischievously. Surely it could only help him capture the spirit of that year’s greatest cello works, which he plays so beautifully on this splendid time-traveling album.