Earlier this year cellist Leonard Elschenbroich came to St George’s for a few days of recording with the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio, before heading Down Under for their Australian tour. We caught up with him during a break for a quick chat about this week’s return visit, which sees him performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Bridge’s Oration with Bristol Ensemble as part of our series THE WORLD CHANGED. The performance of the Bridge concerto now serves as something of a warm up for the BBC Proms, as it was revealed this week that the charismatic musician will perform the work their this year…
So you’re here recording with the Sitkovetsky Piano trio… What are you recording?
We’re recording both Mendelssohn trios for our second CD for BISS (Records); we’re releasing, this month, Czech Trios and next year will be Mendelssohn Trios Part Two.
Is this first time you’ve recorded here at St George’s?
It is the first time, yeah. We’ve played here before, a few times, but never recorded here…
It’s not your average studio is it…
No, it’s really great; I mean the sound is great, the piano is great and it’s a very nice atmosphere as well because you feel like you are in a church / concert hall as opposed to a studio. It’s always difficult when you’re recording for several days without an audience to perform to and feel like you’re performing and not have that slightly sort of sterile feel that comes with stopping and starting. Having the atmosphere of a concert hall helps that actually.
Is it quite odd playing to a room full of empty seats though?
Well it’s even more odd playing in just a studio and knowing that’s gonna be your CD, and knowing that people are gonna listen to that and imagining that you’re playing for people. I think that the only way you can really play from the heart is when you feel you’re playing for people. So I think empty chairs are still better than just no chairs!
You were here four times last year, with both the Bristol Classical Players and the Sitkovetsky Trio… Is it a space you’re becoming familiar with? Do you enjoy performing here?
I’ve now gotten to know it through this three days of recording probably more than any other venue and it’s just a great place to play, but of course very different with an audience. It’s probably easier with an audience; it’s just right when it’s full.
Can you get to know a venue’s acoustic and work with it?
Yeah, I mean when it’s good like that you don’t really need to. When it’s bad it takes work to get used to it and to learn how to deal with it, but when it’s really nice like this you feel comfortable in it. But then the thing is every time you go away and you play another hall, it’s difficult to remember how it feels, so every time you come back you take a bit of time to get used to it again.
We heard you warming up with some Elgar this morning… is that standard practice?
(Laughs) I was warming up with Elgar just because I was thinking about the hall here and that I’m doing Elgar here in May. It’s a good one because with all this trio stuff the writing for the cello is… I mean if you just play that for several days it’s a little bit inhibiting, so to do a romantic concerto I think opens the relationship with the instrument and it just came to me because I was imagining playing it here.
And you’re performing it with Bristol Ensemble… Are you looking forward to that?
Yeah very much and I’ve never done two concertos in one evening before. I was very surprised and flattered that they asked me to do the Elgar and the Bridge. The Bridge will be my first time and of course with the centenary of the First World War I wanted to learn it this year and I really look forward to doing that in Bristol.
What is it about the Elgar Cello Concerto that gets cellists, and audience, so excited?
Well I think it does have a different place in England than it does anywhere else, but it is of course internationally regarded as one of the great Cello concertos. I think for us it’s one of the most enjoyable to play because, for one, it’s orchestrated very smartly so you never feel you have to struggle with the orchestra. Even though it’s written for a very big orchestra, the cello can really sing through the register of the orchestra and also Elgar really captures I think the ideal sound; he really found a new voice for the cello. With regards specifically to how we feel as cellists, as a piece of music I think one of the things that’s very striking about it is that it’s sort of a record of a turning point, a turning point in history and a turning point in someone’s life. The splendour and the Belle Époch richness that preceded the First World War is still there, or the memory of that is, and at the same time the sort of bleakness and, in a sense, modern-ness of what was the aftermath of the First World War and sort of the disillusionment about the future but also about the past. The feeling that things couldn’t go on the way they were and they shouldn’t have ever been that way, and that maybe the values of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century had to clash and explode like that. And there’s this feeling of a turning point which I think is something that people relate to very strongly and that draws people in as much now as I imagine it would do at any moment in time.
What other pieces do you really enjoy playing?
Well I happen to play a lot of Russian music, I enjoy playing Russian music a lot; Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I used to play a lot of Shostakovich but now I’m getting more into Prokofiev, I’ve just recorded his Cello Sonata and I’m about to record the Kabalevsky second cello concerto for my next CD, and then I also recorded some arrangements of Prokofiev from The Three Oranges and Cinderella. I’m more drawn to Prokofiev now than I was before, and this Kabalevsky piece – which nobody knows – is an amazing concerto. Of all the things I know of his I would say it’s his best piece and it should really have a place as one of the great cello concertos, so I’m recording that in Amsterdam next month. I look forward to the Bridge (on 2 May), which I’ve never done before so it’ll be my first time here and again the Bridge is another record of the turning point. Bridge who is known as this sort of very much opulent late-romantic composer and this piece, which is only another ten years later than the Elgar; but what years they were, the 1920s, and how much that brought about. So the Elgar is the beginning of that change and 1930, when Bridge wrote his concerto, that transformation has already happened and is very much a piece of the twentieth century. It’s the peak, and there’s a fractured feeling about it and the wholesomeness of what art and music was before that is falling apart and can no longer be preserved in that way; in art reflecting of course society and a way of life…
As a performer you’re very busy, playing with not just the Sitkovetsky Trio but also Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk, not to mention your solo appearances. How do you find time to do all of these things?
It’s nice, I mean nowadays I think a lot of people have gone back to what used to be more the lifestyle of a musician, which was to have a varied career so you weren’t labelled as either a soloist or chamber musician. I think that’s a really nice development and I love to be between those chairs of playing recitals in trios and concertos and a series of solo recitals, which I haven’t done for a while. With every of those different groups you learn something that you can then apply to another and of course it widens the repertoire so much as cellists; so if you’re just playing concertos there’s plenty but there isn’t as much, and I couldn’t imagine missing out on all the Piano Trio repertoire seeing as I already miss out on the orchestral and the String Quartets, because that’s one thing I don’t do is play String Quartets, so I have to do the other stuff.
And you’re off to Australia in March…
Yeah… I think it’s twelve concerts all over Australia for three weeks.
And of course back to us in May, so we’ll look forward to seeing you then.
Me too, thanks.
Tickets for Leonard’s appearance on Friday are still available, priced from £11 (plus fees). Click here for more information and to book.
THE WORLD CHANGED: EXTREME TIMES, EXTRAORDINARY MUSIC is a series of concerts exploring music and conflict in the 20th century.
Visit theworldchanged.org.uk for full details of this fascinating series.