Jan Vogler on the Beautiful Despair of Schumann's Cello Concerto
The enigmatic Cello Concerto the composer probably never heard played
Seemingly on an impulse, Robert Schumann wrote his Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129, during two weeks in 1850, heading towards the last years of lucidity and life. Schumann may never have heard it played—the concerto did not premiere until seven months after his death—but many classical-music lovers have heard it dozens if not hundreds of times. Only a select few cellists, however, have the honor of playing the Schumann Concerto professionally more than once or twice.
The German cellist Jan Vogler has played it more than 60 times.
Still, for a piece so deep and so formidably difficult, Vogler says that he is just coming “to the point where he can see the light.”
Vogler made his first recording of the Schumann in 2001. Since then his career has skyrocketed and he has been named music director of both the Dresden Music Festival and Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival and Academy.
His new recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is available on Sony Classics.
Grasping The Central Interpretive Question
Vogler has from the beginning of his relationship with the concerto wrestled with a central question of how symphonic the piece is. “My first performance was as a 21-year-old as a replacement for Heinrich Schiff in Berlin. I hadn’t played it before, but I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. “I thought it was a big symphonic concerto and that I had to tell it in a big style.”
However, by the time Vogler first recorded it in 2001 for Berlin Classics, with Christoph Poppen conducting the Munich Chamber Orchestra, he took “much more of a transparent, interactive chamber approach.”
The recording won an Echo Klassik award, the German equivalent of a Grammy Award.
Vogler’s thinking about the concerto further evolved when he played it in Dresden in 2005 with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, to celebrate the friendship and reconciliation symbolized by the reopening of the Frauenkirche, the 18th-century church destroyed in the World War II Allied firebombing of Dresden. Like the issues of war and peace, the Schumann Concerto could no longer be an all black-or-white interpretive affair.
“I learned that the concerto’s most compelling features were the contrasts within, when Schumann feels like he can conquer the world then quickly becomes shy and painfully timid again.”
In fact, when he read that Clara Schumann had described it as “a rather happy piece,” Vogler was shocked. “Look at these quick changes between the very confident and the very fragile, the places where the cello is suddenly left alone after a big orchestra surge,” he muses.
“If there are happy moments in the piece they disappear in a split second. And the second movement with its beautiful melancholic lines has a very lonesome character, with the pizzicatos in the strings sounding emotionally isolated from the cello’s lyrical singing.”
Although it was the big, romantic, subjectively expressive recordings of the concerto by Pablo Casals and Leonard Rose that caught Vogler’s youthful fancy, he describes his current performance style as having inevitably been shaped by “modern notions of performance practice. Structures can be cleared up, shorter notes can be layered, and we now respect the power of dashes and dots.”
Because of the fame and exposure the concerto comes with, Vogler said that young cellists can find their own true musical personality through a combination of research and study of other Schumann works, besides the usual etudes and practice.
Learn to Play the Emotional Explosions
A big sound is indispensable in music that goes in fits and starts and is mined with emotional explosions. The only way to make headway against the orchestra is to take over the soundscape. And the first explosion happens eight bars after the concerto’s opening, after which it reverts to the calm legato theme.
“It is the essence of Schumann’s personality,” Vogler says, “and you must be prepared for it.”
First of all, he adds, “you have to be able to draw a big sound that can both cut through an orchestra at full throttle and at the same time be able to tune it down to reach the audience in quiet, almost motionless places at a very intimate level.”
In the exquisite slow movement, he says, with its double-stops and sighing fifths coded for love, “it is the quality of sound and phrasing that will make everyone melt away.”
To Vogler, preparation for the Schumann Concerto means to “learn a great variety of shifts. Here shifts that are exposed can be beautiful—think about them as making connections between notes that are actually being sung. Listen to Fritz Wunderlich and other singers for their basic quality of voice and legato.
“Also keep in mind that it’s a very daring concerto, so practice taking risks. Throughout the first movement, there are lots of opportunities where you can choose between going up the A string or across the strings. [For example: mm. 19, 60, 63, 80, 109, 136–137, 228, 229, 231]
"For me, the piece suffers if too many of the composed shifts are replaced by clever and 100 percent secure fingerings.”
Vogler sees the concerto as a dialogue in which the soloist “talks” to the orchestra with his playing. In order to have a game plan for success, he suggests labeling each passage with what you’re saying. “This goes especially for the long triplet passages at the end of exposition [mm. 72–91] and recapitulation of the first movement [mm. 240–59], which otherwise can sound mechanical.
"This goes also for the last movement development, where short phrases in dialog with the winds of the orchestra should have a variety of expressions, from shy and questioning to daring, sure, and angry [mm. 476–530].”
According to Vogler, the Schumann is a concerto that demands to be customized and personalized. Using the aforementioned hypothetical labels as a road map, tempered by your own responses during the performance, your performance could be highlighted by emotional outbursts in the first movement.
You’ll find Schumann at his most lyrical in the second movement, before being asked to interrupt the flow with what Vogler calls the “Beethoven recitative” (mm. 327–344), which introduces the last movement.
Above All, Be Assertive
Despite the concerto’s fearsome technical obstacles, Vogler says, “you must assert yourself. You have to play with more extreme articulation and more marcato than you can think would be possible. Your 16th notes have to be very well articulated and yet played with rather large bow amounts.”
Vogler considers the concerto’s last movement, marked Sehr lebhaft (lively), as the key to the concerto’s success. “It starts out with the cello against an overpowering orchestra,” Vogler says, “but the cello gets into a better position by fighting with the orchestra with big and well-articulated musical devices. And the sense of struggle is OK. Unlike Dvorak in his Cello Concerto, Schumann intends a more struggling journey.”
Vogler uses the word “success” often, as an identifier of a goal which is in no way competing against others. “The success of the concerto’s last movement,” he says, “depends on the reaction of the [cellist’s] left hand. Often the orchestra is not giving us much time—there are big jumps, like in the beginning of the movement [mm. 352 and 354], that need to be precise and rhythmical.
Practice these passages with dotted rhythms; it trains your left hand to be strong and fast.”
Coming back to the overall interpretation of the concerto, Vogler believes that a narrative or story made from sophisticated phrasing, tone colors, and singing qualities is needed for the music and that these qualities best reflect what Schumann must have been going through, wandering increasingly unchecked into areas of deep vulnerability as well as into ambitious musical passages, impossibly grand.
“Schumann’s Concerto was once widely considered a thankless task,” Vogler says. “If you’re not sure of your orchestra, conductor, and audience, choose Saint-Saëns, Lalo, or even Dvorak instead—the Schumann Concerto only works when a joint effort of soloist, orchestra, and conductor achieves that enigmatic quality that I love about the piece.”