So, later this week, I’m conducting, among other things, the Schumann Cello Concerto with the Surrey Mozart Players as part of our ongoing Schumann cycle.

I find cello works challenging to accompany in a very specific way, because I’ve played most of them myself and tend to naturally accompany the soundtrack that’s going on in my head rather than what the soloist is actually doing if I’m not on the ball. As a result, I find it’s helpful for me to listen to a few recordings just to help prepare me for interpretations of the piece that are very different to my own.

This morning, I sat down with a recording by Pierre Fournier, a cellist I love. This is actually on a DVD I got for Christmas and still hadn’t watched. It’s fantastic, and when was the last time you saw someone with grey hair soloing in a concert? I was loving it all, and relishing the different-ness of it, until I got to something I just can’t relish. Blog post ensues.

Just before the coda of the entire concerto, Schumann inserts a brief and dramatic recitative passage. It’s one of the most important moments in the piece. It’s also the scene of one of the most egregious “traditional” assaults on musical logic and integrity in the cello repertoire.

Schumann was a visionary in dealing with larger forms like the symphony and the concerto, always looking for new ways to make entire pieces stand as coherent wholes, whether through the motivic cross-references in the 2nd and 3rd symphonies or by condensing the traditional three movement concerto structure into a single, unbroken span as he does in the cello concerto.

The first two movements are deeply introspective and heartbreakingly lyrical. After the second movement, which is a tender romance, Schumann brings back the music of the first movement before launching into a stormy transitional episode. Here the lyricism of the first two movements erupts into something quite angry and dark, which then launches the music into the finale.

The last movement is much more virtuosic in character than the first two, and gives the soloist ample opportunity to leap from one end of the cello to the other. It’s punishingly difficult. However, even with all this virtuosity, there remains an undercurrent of melancholia, with numerous quotations from the first movement appearing furtively beneath the vaulting arpeggios in the cello.

In my opinion, many performers miss the point in this movement, playing the whole thing too lightly and too much as a showpiece. It’s showy enough, but it’s also part of the whole, a whole that is designed to be organically unified. It’s actually the hardest movement to bring off musically and keep a sense of direction and drama.

Finally, we come to the recit before the coda. Some commentators refer to it as an accompanied cadenza, but it really is a recitative, and only a brief one at that. I segues immediately into a pensive and introverted passage full of broken chords in the cello which, in their swings from one end of the cello register to another, capture something of the sense of loss and nostalgia that we felt in the first movement. Gradually, the intensity builds and finally Schumann launches us into an ecstatic and virtuosic final codetta which is the fastest music in the piece.

Here’s the rub: Maestro Fournier, who I admire as a cellist and musician, along with countless other cellists (including Casals, Starker and Piatigorsky), interpolates a long cadenza between the recit and the broken chord episode. It’s a “tradition” that has no basis in the text or musical logic, for which the only justification seems to be that cellists, whose technical facility perhaps outstrips their musical judgement, seem concerned that the whole concerto isn’t flashy enough to prove their virtuosity to the world.

Never mind that these cadenzas are always crap, or that the concerto is plenty virtuosic, this is a classic example of a place where there is simply no justification in the score for a performing choice, and of a place where Schumann’s original is in every way a musically superior concept. Here, after all, is piece where the composer’s primary idea seems to be to create a taught and unified structure, and yet, in this 22 minute work, some soloists seem feel justified in inserting three to five minutes of complete formulaic rubbish into the performance. Many of these cadenzas are longer than the whole second movement.

Really, just play the piece then do an encore. You can even play your cadenza as an encore!

Of course, I don’t know if Gemma plans on doing a cadenza or not, but that’s not to worry. If she does, I’ll be the good accompanist and be smiling down at her all the way. I’m just concerned Schumann won’t be smiling down at any of us….

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods  


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “tradition=transgression”

  1. james smock

    It’s not as bad as it could be. I’m under the impression that divas of years gone by were prone to insert favorite arias into current projects. Would you like some Donizzeti with your Mozart?

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