By Benjamin Whitcomb
The cello repertoire contains numerous one-movement pieces for cello and piano or cello and orchestra, many of which are wonderful works if not masterpieces. Several of these compositions are so famous and popular that learning them is almost inevitable, like some sort of cellistic rite of passage. An excellent example of this sort of work is provided by Max Bruch’s beautiful and emotional musical prayer, Kol Nidrei, Op. 47.
Originally for cello and orchestra, the work’s cello and piano version is more commonly performed. The issue of balance is more problematic when playing with orchestra—one really has to project well, and some measures take a bit more work and care to get them to line up correctly in terms of ensemble, but otherwise the experience of learning the cello part is of course very similar whether you will be performing it with orchestra or piano.
Before you get started working on the piece in earnest, there are some useful things you can do beforehand.
- Listen to various recordings—preferably at least three.
- Think about what the piece means. Can you imagine a storyline, or even add specific words to certain passages? The more you can do these things, the more likely you will perform the piece in a way that is meaningful for you and for your future audiences.
- Practice your F major, D major, D minor, and B minor scales and arpeggios thoroughly, including in thumb position.
- Practice cultivating a sound quality corresponding to several different moods, including those specifically requested in the piece: espressivo, dolce, con fuoco, and tranquillo.
- Practice your best legato, sostenuto stroke. Throughout most of this work, you will want to completely hide the bow changes.
- Sing the piece. I know this is a difficult proposition for some passages, but do your best. One of the best features of the cello is its tonal similarity to the human voice, and this is the perfect sort of piece in which to revel in that quality.
Tips for Practicing Specific Passages
Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve introduced this work to countless students. Here are a few specific places where a little advice is usually required.
Make sure that you taper the very first note of the piece beautifully. Then, apply a beautiful taper to every note that precedes a rest or ends a phrase.
- Make sure that the vibrato in Ex.1 is stunningly beautiful. Avoid letting it enervate or atrophy anywhere within the phrase, as this will somewhat destroy the sense of line.
- Make sure that your musical line is directed toward the second half of m. 12, which is what unifies and brings closure to the many three-note motives that precede it.
- Do not underestimate the importance of this opening melody. Once you can play it convincingly, you have really set yourself up for success in the rest of the piece.
- Do not let your tone or intonation suffer just because you are playing higher on the instrument.
- The C5 (m. 17, beat 3) is especially susceptible to sounding puny or apologetic, so take pains to compensate for this: Practice playing the note confidently and with plenty of bow and vibrato.
- The F4 at the end of the phrase is virtually never a cello’s most beautiful pitch, and sometimes even has a noticeable wolf tone. You can do much to make up for this tendency by ensuring that the bow has a good, deep connection with the string through the entirety of the note.
- Carefully subdivide throughout this passage to make sure that all of the rhythms are played accurately.
- To ensure continuity of the tone and the phrase, use a deliberate “slow bow” during the half notes, even from the very instant that you start the note. You must sing all the way through these long notes. Love them from beginning to end.
- Try practicing this passage down an octave as well. When you play it as written, strive to keep the same quality of sound and intonation that you had in the lower octave.
- Try placing fermatas on various notes. Holding a note much longer than written gives you a better opportunity to evaluate such things as your tone and intonation, plus also your degree of balance in the hand and your overall comfort level on the pitch—very important factors!
How often do you incorporate octave shifts into your warm-up routine? Perhaps this measure provides the perfect excuse to start doing so.
- Practice the shifts in this measure in a variety of rhythms. Ensure that each note truly prepares the following one. That is to say, if you miss a shift, do not blame the note you landed on—blame the one right before it.
- Example 6 is a complex and challenging passage, one of the two most technically difficult in the piece. As such, you will likely be spending a considerable amount of time with it. Be patient, systematic, and persistent.
- Use slow practice.
- Divide the passage into many subsections, and practice each of these separately before reassembling them. Make exercises (or even small études) out of each of these smaller subsections.
- Be sure to count the rhythms in this passage carefully. It is easy to get distracted by the fast runs and not subdivide each of the longer notes.
- As you practice these measures, do not overlook the importance of finding ways to increase your comfort level, which in turn will improve all things. It is all too easy to let difficult passages like this tie you in knots. Stay loose, balanced, and comfortable—ever like a virtuoso.
- The second half of this piece, all in the parallel major key, assumes a very different character and mood than the first half. Be sure to convey this change throughout.
- As with mm. 41–45, you will probably be spending quite a bit of time with the passage in Ex. 7. Be sure to practice it slowly until your left hand truly knows what it is doing. Pay careful attention to intonation throughout.
- Using a drone pitch can be very helpful, and it can also help you understand the underlying harmony in each measure.
- When crossing strings, ensure that each finger is going perfectly straight across and that the left elbow is supporting the motion—this way, neither intonation nor comfort level will suffer.
- Practice the large shifts in different rhythms, playing each passage sometimes down an octave as a model.
- Practice shaping the line to sound as vocal as possible (as opposed to “notey,” like an étude or exercise).
- Maintain a high level of volume and intensity through m. 79.
- It is worth isolating the arpeggios in the second half of mm. 85 and 86, for the sake of both intonation and comfort. Trying several different fingerings here can be good for both your left hand and your ear.
- Do not take it easy now that you have made it through the tough passage. It takes bow control and focus to create a beautiful pianissimo sound in Ex. 8.
- Be careful not to let the rhythms or shifts in mm. 98 or 101 disturb the peaceful mood of the passage.
- Savor every note in m. 111 (Ex. 9)—do not be in a hurry.
- Practice this bar until you can play it very cleanly and accurately, for it will linger in the memory of the listener.
Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is beautiful to listen to and even more fun to perform. Once you learn how to play it well, it is a piece you will always be glad to have in your repertoire—suitable for so many occasions.
To download the full score of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, visit imslp.org.