Master Class for String Players With Robert Battey

by Harriet Kaplan

On October 12, 2014, Washington Post music critic and cellist Robert Battey held a master class for a small but attentive group of AMSF members and guests. Bob offered valuable insights into how to play more musically, garnered from both his experience as a student of the great cellists Bernard Greenhouse and Janos Starker and from many years of hearing and playing with some of the gifted artists of our time.

First to perform was Larry Bamford on violin, accompanied by Gerry Edwards on piano, in Fritz Kreisler's sentimental character piece Liebesleid ("Love's Sorrow"). Bob complimented Larry on his tone and free, open vibrato. He addressed his first comments to Gerry, recommending less pedal, less volume, and more waltz flavor in the accompaniment to be achieved by playing less on the second and third beats of each measure and by playing the second beat slightly early (in the style of a Viennese waltz). He then suggested that Larry emphasize the larger four-bar phrases, creating a kind of metrical dissonance with the one-bar emphasis in the piano part.

Bob then delved into various ways to make the violin part more expressive, especially shifting and use of the bow. For example, the first note involves a shift to the second note; on that shift, Bob asked Larry to "transport me to Old Vienna" by beginning the shift earlier and making it slower. This led to a discussion of delayed versus anticipated shifts, the former being on the "old" finger and before the bow change, the latter being on the "new" finger and with the bow change. Varying the types and styles of shifts, and the speed of vibrato, in a repetitive (though lovely) piece like Liebesleid can enhance expressiveness.

Another expressive area is use of the bow. Bob talked about the difficulty for string players of achieving consistent rhythmic patterns in different parts of the bow, and recommended that Larry be aware of the different muscles used at the frog and the tip of the bow when playing the same dotted rhythm. He mentioned that the quick up-bow at the tip was a Kreisler trademark.

All of these points Bob described as being the second level of making something come alive after the notes have been learned. They can make the music dance and bring out its drama.

Robert Battey and Sarah Aderholt

Robert Battey works with cellist Sarah Aderholt.

Sarah Aderholt performed the first movement of Haydn's cello concerto in C major accompanied by me on the piano. Bob complimented Sarah on the improvement in her playing since her performance at the last master class. He then went through the piece, highlighting many details that could enhance its performance. He began with the first note in the cello part, which is a four-note chord, asking how she would break the chord given that all four notes cannot sound at the same time. The "right" answer is that the top notes should sound on the beat because that is where the actual melody begins. Bob mentioned the articulation of the opening theme in the cello part, which traditionally has been done with separate bows on the basis of Rostropovich's editing of the concerto but which conflicts with the slurred notation in the orchestra part. He also talked about differences in sound quality between the A and D strings and that perhaps fingerings could be adjusted to take advantage of these qualities.

The rest of the class focused on elements of cello technique, including how one sits while playing the cello, tilting the instrument from side to side to maximize use of the bow (i.e., when playing on the A string, which is the highest string, tilt the cello to the right), using the arm rather than the wrist to initiate short bow strokes, and practicing passages with tricky bowings on open strings.

There was much more that could have been covered, but given the limited time, Bob managed to touch on many issues that will be helpful to the performers as they continue to work on these pieces. Everyone present enjoyed his comments and came away with some useful new information.