3 years ago

Volume 13 - Issue 6 - March 2008


COVER STORY (1): SIGISWALD KUIJKEN INTERVIEWED BY PAMELA MARGLESCloser to the spark of the momentBelgian violinist Sigiswald Kuijken stood in frontof the audience at a Tafelmusik concert lastmonth to introduce his performance of Bach'sCello Suite no.1. He was performing it not onthe usual cello, but on the viola da spalla. Smiling,he held up what looked like an oversizedviola, and said, "This is a cello".Kuijken's roots in early music go back to a timeeven before a music critic could write that a revivalof period strings was as needed as a revivalof period dentistry, as Nicholas Kenyonreported in Authenticity and Early Music. In factKuijken counts as one of the true pioneers ofthe early music movement. He founded one oftoday's first period instrument orchestras, La PetiteBande, and conducted the de but of the Orchestraof the Age of Enlightenment. With hisbrothers Wieland and Barthold and colleagues likeGustav Leonhardt, Anner Bylsma, and Frans Brliggen, he made landmarkperiod instrument recordings of Couperin, Bach, Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Boccherini.More recently, he founded the Kuijken String Quartet with his wife,violist Marleen Thiers, brother Wieland, and Frarn;;ois Fernandez, as well asthe chamber ensemble Two Kuijken Generations, which includes two of hisdaughters.In 1969 he revolutionized baroque violin playing by taking the chin rest offhis violin. Now he is doing something even more revolutionary-performingbaroque cello music on an instrument newly fashioned from historical documentsand paintings from the period, the viola da spalla, which he holds acrosshis shoulder because of its unwieldy size.When 1 met with Kuijken at his hotel the day after the first of four Tafelmusikconcerts, 1 asked him about his reference to Belgian painterRene Magritte :S painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe in his introduction to theBach.My mention ofMagritte was more like a joke. He writes on the painting thatthis is not a pipe, even though you see a pipe - that's because it's only apainting ofa pipe. But I am saying that even if this thing in my hand may notlook like a cello, it is a cello. In fact, at one time this was the cello.What about all the cellos from that period that are still around?What we call a cello today did not come up until around 1700, I think. Whatexisted before that was the much larger violone. I am more and more afraidthat what we use as a baroque cello today is something that we invented.The baroque cello only became prominent when the baroque period wasalmost over.What do cellists think of what you are doing?lf you are a cello player and have spent a whole lifetime on the bible ofBach's cello suites, it's strange for someone to say, "Well, this might not bewritten for your instrument." But I'm not going to not say what I thinkbecause of the many cellists who play them beautifully. I have heard mybrother Wieland, who is a cellist, saying for the past twenty-five years that hewas convinced these cello suites were written for a different instrument.Would he play this instrument?No, but I wouldn't perform on a cello between the legs either, althoughcould more easily do that than he could play this instrument because I playthe viola da gamba as well. But it's practically impossible for cello players toswitch to the arm position, unless they started young.Are there some of these original instruments around?There 's one in the Brussels musical instrument museum, and there 's one inLeipzig. There were actually two in Leipzig, but the second one was lostduring the war.And what do they call them in the museum?Museums are conditioned by tradition, so the one in Brussels is called a violapomposa. But that is only because of a legend reported halfa century laterby Bach's son that Bach had worked with the Leipzig luthier Hoffinan toinvent the viola pomposa. Even the label inside, which says Hoffman Leipzig,Kuijken with viola da spallacould easily have been made later. Bach never usedthe term viola pomposa himself. But the descriptionsthat you find in historical writings from theperiod describe exactly that type of instrument.At the concert last night, you spoke about theneed for courage. That you certainly have. Butdo you think that if you weren't so influentialpeople would consider you a kook?Ifl am courageous, it's because I'm very curious.I want to know about these things and experimentwith them. When I get a personal conviction inside,if! can find the time to try it out, I will do it.How it's received is another matter. I just don'tcare too much, I must say. But, of course, I knowvery well that with the recognition and authoritythat my brothers and I have, ifwe try out somethinglike this, it has a different resonance than if abeginner would try it out. It's a shame, but that's how it works. People willcriticize us more heavily. But ifwe convince them, then we can convincemore strongly.What about all the recordings of Bach on cello - are they wrong?It's true that in the historical performances, we all, myself included, for thosemany years used baroque cellos. When I recorded the Brandenburg Concertoswith Leonhardt, that was the way to do them. But I don't believe thatany more. Last spring La Petite Bande perfonned all six of Bach's BrandenburgConcertos using this instrument for the violoncello parts. So for the thirdconcerto we had three of them. That is how it was meant to be, I think.Whenever a score from the early 18"' century says violoncello, I think itwould be absolutely normal to do everything on this instrument. The cellocame up the very late 17"' century, when they started to make the big instrumentssmaller. In fact I think that some of the very big violas that surviveoriginally could have been violas da spalla which have been reduced to half intheir height.Where does that leave baroque cellists if you are saying that this is theonly way to play these works?I'm not saying that, because I respect very much people who would playthem on baroque cello. It's not that one has to be historically correct. Iprefer Bach played very beautifully on the piano than on a harpsichord playedin a mediocre way. The music is first. I think of this instrument as an interestingsource of inspiration. It provides information that helps us understand themusic. I see many people in the audience who share that with me, so that forme is nice.Your performance of the Bach suite on the viola da spa/la last night wasvery moving.I think that's the only interesting thing. Yes, I think it has a very simple beautyinside which corresponds to Bach's writing music. You feel absolutely unifiedwith this music when you play iton that instrument. It is very natural. Forme personally it's an added value that my performance was on an instrumentthat probably was more the instrument which was in the head of the composerwhen he composed it. So you are closer to the spark of the moment- thatfor me is important.But that :S the argument for using period instruments, isn 1 it?Yes, and within that field this is the argument to do the cello suites on thisinstrument. I can easily understand how somebody who has been playing thecello brilliantly his whole life would be against it. But I don't see this as apolemical issue.Could this be seen as an excuse for violinists or violists to poach amasterpiece from cellists?No, I'm really convinced by the arguments why Bach would have used thisshoulder cello as his solo cello. I can show you the difference in sound. If youplay this one like a little cello between the knees, it sounds awful. Whereas ifI take the same instrument and hold it up like this it has an open resonance.For me another strong argument in favour of this instrument is that the cellonever stops changing position in this music. That is not a proof, of course.10 WWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COM MARCH 1 - APRI L 7 2008

But the fact is that in baroque music violin fingerings give birth to a certainway of composing. You have lots of motifs in the compass of one octavebecause the octave is from the first to the fourth finger on two strings. Youdon't have to shift. But in this position on a modem cello, you don't have theoctave, you only have a seventh. So the modem cello has to jump all thetime to reach the compass of the octave.The poverty of the violin is that our lower sounds are not very low. Withour high notes, we are bound to be like prima donnas all the time which is notthat sympathetic. It's an extreme instrument, and it has become more andmore extreme throughout history.I must say that I feel very familiar with the lower tessitura of the viola daspa Ila. because it provides the harmony. I think the low sound enters somewhereelse in your body than the higher sounds. I like it fantastically.I find that a rather a surprising thing for a violinist to say.It's by chance I became a violinist. My first musical instrument was not theviolin. We were living in the countryside in Belgium, in the middle of nowhere.We had no radio. My parents were not musicians, but they weremusical. I had six brothers, and three are musicians. Bartold, the sixth andyoungest, is a flutist, I am number five and Wieland, the cellist, is numberthree. When I was six, my three older brothers took summer courses tomake musical instruments, and came back with a kind of medieval fiddlewith six strings and a bow. It looked like something from a Memling painting.Most importantly, they brought back some musical scores with them by Orlandode Lassus and Josquin Des Pres. Those were my first instruments andmy first music, believe it or not.We moved to Bruges in 1952, when I was ten. I entered the conservatory,but I was not allowed to continue on this kind of instrument, or even thismusic. But I was attracted immediately to the violin. Wieland and I havealways kept contact with these little instruments, which turned out to bealmost like the viola da gamba. So we both came to play the gamba.And in the next generation?My wife and I have five children, and three are musicians. One daughter ismy teaching assistant in the conservatory at Brussels. And my wife is aviolinist and violist.Did living in a historical city like Bruges have an irifluence?Of course. Philosophically and spiritually, the presence of such incrediblebeauty was something that, as a child, you are not indifferent to. Before youcan even understand it, you already have it inside - if you are sensitive to it,and I was. Whenever I go back to Bruges !just stand there and say, 'Whatis this!'Do you conduct modern orchestras?I don't do it very often. I have had very good experiences with modernorchestras, and sometimes not so good. I always try to conduct romanticcomposers like Mendelssohn or Brahms where historic instruments are notthat important. I have sometimes played a Classical piece in a program witha modem orchestra, and, although the sound which comes out is not whatI'm dreaming of, I see that they are so happy to do it in this way and theylearn a lot. But I'm not going to be an apostle going around to modem orchestrastelling them what to do. It's not in my nature.But do you think it is important?Yes, sometimes by little drops you can put something there, and there, andthere - and that's enough, I think.The Tafelmusik concert seemed especially significant because you hadtaught music director - and concertmistress - Jeanne Lamon at TheHague conservatory in the early 1980 sYes, long ago. And Christina Mahler (Tafelrnusik's principal cellist) was alsoa student of Anner Bylsma there at the san1e time, so I've known her as well.There seemed to be great rapport between you and the orchestra lastnight.Yes, they responded immediately very well. But they are used to playingwith conductors who conduct ahead of the sound like everywhere in theworld. I hate this - it's like playing a keyboard with rubber gloves on. So Iasked them to play in the gesture. Then you feel the real beat. And theyknew exactly what I meant.FOUNDED 189LTHE TORONTOMENDELSSOHN~~~CHOIRNOEL EDISON, ARTISTIC DIRECTORI don i know what you mean.Have a look next time you go to a symphony concert. The conductor will dogestures in the air, and you wi ll see his beat, but the sound will come a goodM AR CH 1 - APRIL 7 2008 WWW.THEWHOLENOTE.COM 11

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