The Violin Channel recently caught up with former Schoenfeld International Cello Competition and the Boulder International Art of Duo Chamber Music Competition 1st prize winner, American cello virtuoso Julian Schwarz.
In a VC exclusive guest blog, the 27-year-old soloist shares his top considerations for preparing Tchaikovsky’s virtuosic ‘Variations on a Rococo Theme’.
JUILIAN SCHWARZ | TCHAIKOVSKY | VARIATIONS ON A ROCOCO THEME OP. 33 | DORSTAN HALL & THE CAMERATA CHICAGO | 2016
“Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33 is a balletic minefield for cello and orchestra. A minefield because of the various technical challenges that seem to pop up in the most inconvenient places, and balletic because of the work’s natural kinship with Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet scores. Just as traditional ballets include ‘variations’ for each lead role to showcase his/her most impressive leaps, twirls, and flourishes, the Rococo does the same, with the cellist playing almost every role!
When studying the piece, it is important to think of the various ballet characters and how best to bring them to life. For instance, the first variation might showcase the female lead’s twirls, while the fourth variation could focus on the male lead’s flutters and graceful landings. The ‘pas de deux’ might be the third variation, while the lovers’ lament the sixth variation in d minor. A traditional Tchaikovsky ‘Trepak’ as the seventh variation? Maybe I’m just in a seasonally appropriate Nutcracker mood!
Once our concept of character is developed, we must try to do our ‘showing-off’ carefully. When virtuosity is an inherent component to an otherwise brilliantly written work of music, our showing-off must be done with music in mind, always. In that vein, we must try to make the hardest moments seem the easiest while serving the phrasing. This is where my concept of the fifteen-minute practice comes into play. If we isolate the most stressful hit-or-miss moments (and in this piece there are many), we should be able to practice very efficiently. I am a singer at heart, so I love to luxuriate in the most vocal moments, but when practicing the Rococo, I must discipline my practice to isolate those nail-biter spots. Though this is my tenth anniversary performing this piece (from 17 to 27, and over 40 performances later!), those hard spots continue to need my constant attention.
It is also important to consider the influence of the work’s dedicatee, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Fitzenhagen was by all accounts a brilliant cellist and technician, but the tension between him and Tchaikovsky is well documented. Fitzenhagen rearranged the variations in a different order and removed one entirely. He also included many of his signature tricks. If we consult original pieces by Fitzenhagen (such as the Concert Waltzes), we can deduce that the man must have had an incredible knowledge of the fingerboard (especially the high register), and an impressive ‘staccato’ (probably both down-bow and up-bow). We must give our best effort to make his tricks our own—to adhere our technique to his—instead of accepting that we do not need ever achieve his level of virtuosity.
Here is a variation-by-variation glimpse into what I believe to be the key considerations in this masterpiece:
Theme: Elegance! Like a work of Rococo art, nothing is out of place. Down-bows and up-bows must sound the same. There must be beautiful taper to short notes, and they must never sound pecky. Think about phrasing, and the high-points of the seemingly simple phrases. Change the concept subtly on the returns.
Variation 1: Sink into the bass notes of the three-note patterns so the left hand can spring from that impetus, just as a ballerina would take flight from bent legs. Make sure to practice the hand shapes for consistent intonation. When performing with orchestra, play much louder when the violin section takes over the second half of the theme, otherwise the cello triplets will be lost.
Variation 2: Practice scales in staccato. Make sure to practice both up-bow and down-bow staccato in scale work. Anchor the hand at various pivotal points (either the note prior to a shift, or the note of a shift) in the upward scales. This can also be done with a slight bow accent. Tell a story in the 2nd-3rd variation interlude.
Variation 3: Sing! This is the true slow movement of the work. Choose the high points of phrases carefully as the theme returns many times. No monotony! The two big stringendos are crucial to giving the movement life. At the end of this variation make sure to have a ‘light hand’, or ‘soft fingers’ in the floating arpeggios. Consider playing a real note on the final high ‘e’ instead of a harmonic. It is only a slight difference in left hand pressure to create the ‘real’ tone. Try to avoid the use of harmonics in general, and maintain a consistent vibrato, even on moving notes.
Variation 4: Though this movement is a little more ‘pomposo’, try not to let it become heavy. Don’t rush through the scales to increase virtuosity. This ends up sounding out of place and unnatural. Try to observe some of Fitzenhagen’s up-bow staccato markings. Remove the bow from the string when playing short notes as to maintain the ring and natural taper. Be a little bit of an actor when leading up to the fifth variation. The repeated nachschlag + E’s fall flat unless they feel syllabic.
Variation 5: Be a sensitive partner to our friend the principal flute! It is his/her theme, not ours. Maintain soft fingers when ascending the instrument. Don’t press the left hand too much into the string, and make sure major-second trills err on the large side and minor-second trills on the small side. In the first cadenza, create a conversation of register. The cello is a great instrument for singing as both the soprano and the bass. Make sure the audience knows who is who. In the large octave leap E’s, make sure you have a visual idea of exactly where the top E is.
Cadenza: Consult various editions for accuracy in the cadenza. Tradition has caused certain chords to speak in the way they were not written, and certain dynamics to be backward. Try to honor the score. Make sure the end of the cadenza becomes somber. After many playful variations, the audience needs the mood to be set for the sixth variation.
Variation 6: Make sure this one doesn’t fly by. It is perhaps the most heart-wrenching music of the whole work, but it can feel fleeting if performed too quickly. Enjoy it, and try to avoid harmonics and open strings. Practice a few times singing it using your actual voice, in an operatic fashion, and see how many vocal harmonics you use! Play a duet with the clarinet.
Variation 7: Though this one can last only a couple minutes, it might require the most practice, by a wide margin! It is worth it. After an otherwise brilliant performance of the piece, the seventh variation deserves all the cleanliness and precision wecan muster. Practice slowly, and in dotted rhythms. Pick a performance tempo that will allow phrasing. A technician plays the hard stuff well. A great artist, on the other hand, phrases and invents even in the hardest passages! As our bodies and capabilities are never identical to another’s, don’t feel constricted by someone else’s solutions, in bowing or fingering. Make sure to be creative in finding your own solutions. If it is not working—change it! For the octaves, consider using the strong part of your thumb (the knuckle) for the lower octave to provide more strength to the hand shape.
A graduate of the Colburn and Juilliard Schools, where he studied with Ronald Leonard and Joel Krosnick, Julian is a former 1st prize winner at the Schoenfeld International Cello Competition and the Boulder International ‘Art of Duo’ Chamber Music Competition | He will perform the Rococo Variations on November 30th and December 2nd in Newport and Virginia Beach – under the baton of Maestra JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra