By Emily Wright | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Elgar’s Cello Concerto has everything a player could dream of, with soaring themes and wild mood swings, all written in a way that fits comfortably in the hand. It can be tempting to get carried away with this piece, but my encouragement here is to continually, lovingly, focus on what Elgar himself put on the page.
The opening chords (Figure 1) are marked nobilmente—so while there is room for a certain amount of fire and percussion in these strokes, it’s essential for the notes to speak with beauty and resonance. Most multi-note chords benefit from a sense of lateral energy, rather than pressure. Intense passages can tempt a player to crush the string, but this only serves to dampen the sound. Allowing the string to vibrate fully requires a sensitivity to the limits of your particular instrument and bow setup. Experiment with bow speed, placement, and hair tension until you find the right combination that delivers big sound with no crunch.
Elgar indicated largamente in the second measure, and I’ve had to implore many students to take him at his word! There are many ways to be flexible with these measures but playing with haste is not one of them. Proceed with a sense of broadening, relishing, and sustaining each note.
Finding m. 4’s B in extended fourth position on the C string doesn’t have to be a guess. Example 1 is an exercise to help establish the distance from the second finger C to the high B across the string. This is what I call “scaffolding a shift”—inserting a temporary structure that supports the move from the old note to the new one.
The solo ad lib. at the end of the example in Figure 1 is the transition into the first theme, each note serving a purpose to create tension and a feeling of expectation. Think of the 16ths as pick-ups to the tied 8ths, and the notes in m. 8 as stretching, with great resistance, up to the vanishing high F-sharp that the cello passes, like a flame, to the orchestra as it plays the exposition.
During shifts that cover large intervals, practice with a flexible hand and an easy, curious demeanor. The note you’re shifting to is a release, not a grab. Practicing shifts with anxiety and physical tension shows up in the sound. Don’t forget, you are always emoting, always informing the listener about your frame of mind through the way you play.
There are several fingerings for the theme at Figure 2, and you should feel free to come up with your own; I use this one as it puts the shifts in position before high notes in the line. It’s best to avoid shifting up to notes like the high B in legato passages like this, as it tends to add emphasis where the music calls for restraint. Resist the temptation to create swells during this initial expression of the theme. While it’s possible to maintain a pianissimo in any quadrant of the bow, it’s easier to maintain the detached character of this theme by staying away from the frog.
As with fingerings, there are myriad bowings that work for this section. The one I use does a great job of minimizing any sense of swaying or urgency by switching the groupings from a repeated 4+2 to alternating groupings of 4+2 and 3+3. This allows for a more controllable dynamic level: you won’t have to zing the upstrokes to avoid running out of bow.
Avoid a swaying sea-shanty phrasing when the bowing moves to 2+2 in m. 20. Sustain the energy through each bow stroke by softening the right hand and concentrating on the arm as the main driver of each change in bow direction.
The more you practice the first seven Popper High School studies, the better you will play the more dextrous passages of this concerto.
The scale at m. 32 (Figure 3) is such a triumph. We know exactly where it’s headed and yet it stuns every time. The upper fingering is the one I favor; the lower one has fewer shifts, but I like the way the upper pairs each shift with a down bow. Save some bow power for the last seven notes of this run: the sf on the downbeat of m. 32 is the perfect place to lean and then back away to a single forte to begin the melodic minor-scale crescendo. The high E is long, and played with a brilliant tone.
The gymnastics of mm. 51–75 (Figure 4) require a developed sense of the way the notes are mapped on the fingerboard. To do this well, three things must be absolutely clear, beginning with the location of the first finger. Measuring shifts according to where the first finger starts and ends is essential! Next, you must know how the finger being shifted to relates to the first finger: Is it a half step? Whole? More? Third, you must understand what it is supposed to sound like.
Bow speed is enormously helpful during larger shifts, pulling the down bow in a burst of speed, and tapering the end of the note to disguise excess glissando. The bowing is written to shape the phrase—the high points marking out C-sharp (later C natural), B, and A—but it also happens to be the perfect cover for these leaps up and down the fingerboard.
I could write a treatise about every measure of this beloved concerto, but hopefully this brief helps triage some of the passages that do not always come naturally. Take the time to study this score and make decisions about phrase shape, tone color, time feel, and bowing based first upon what Elgar has indicated on the page. That way, personal touches come from a place of educated understanding; a moment of communion with a composer who may well have loved the cello as much as we do.