A few days ago, my dear friend Daniel Barrett sent me a link to some superb playing by the cellist Albert Catell.
One of the great turning points of my life occurred when Max Gershunoff hired me as assistant principal cello for a 17-week tour of the Royal Ballet from London. This tour featured two of the most famous dancers in the world, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. In order to get this job, I had to audition on the two big cello solos in the repertoire, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Frankly, I don’t think I was really up to it at that time, and I’m glad the principal cellist Albert Catell (nee Abraham Katz) never got sick.
Albert Catell was a great and useful influence on me during that 17-week tour. Albert Catell was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1910 (the same year that my father was born). In 1924 he went to the Leipzig Hochschule fur Musik to study with Professor Julius Klengel, who was one of the most renowned cello teachers in the world. He completed his training there in 1927 and went to Berlin that year to work with the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann. He left Germany in 1936 as the Nazi threat loomed over the horizon. He joined the Israel Philharmonic as solo cellist and played there under many great conductors including Toscanini and Furtwangler. It was no wonder that Albert harbored a positive dislike for me, considering me untalented and a young whippersnapper. Fortunately, the contractor, Max Gershunoff and the conductor, John Lanchbery, had a much more positive view of me, which enabled me to continue as Albert’s assistant for the next three years at the Metropolitan Opera House. That however did not deter me from appreciating the way he played the big solos in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle. From the above video, it should be easy to imagine the way he played the big solos in the ballet repertoire. He played the opening of the Swan Lake solo in a grand style, using many separate bows and lots of vibrato. That became the model for my own interpretation of that solo which I played three to four hundred times in public. He had a similarly large and romantic approach to the beautiful solo in Sleeping Beauty, and also Giselle. Most impressive for me was the way he played The Swan with the famous Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, in Madison Square Garden. His sound absolutely dominated that huge arena. I learned most of what I knew about laying out a cello solo from watching him do it. It’s ironic that years later, I was the one to play all of these big solos on the national television broadcasts. Nevertheless, I owe him big time for what I learned from his playing.
Because Albert had studied extensively with the famous pedagogue, Julius Klengel, I offered to pay him $25 a lesson to show me how Klengel’s system would increase my security in the left hand. He did show me one of Klengel’s exercises, which I have used to warm up for Strauss operas such as, Salome and Elektra. I did not embrace his idea that you should be able to play everything in the cello repertoire including such works as Davidoff concertos, Romberg concertos, and a whole raft of short pieces, in order to sound credible on the important basic repertoire that all cellists play (or try to).
Albert Catell bought two bows for $300 from someone he met in one of the cities we travelled to. One was a Bausch and the other was a Knopf. However, he only wanted to keep the Bausch. I had been after Albert to teach me how to do a particular type of ricochet bowing for weeks, finally after buying these bows, he told me he would teach me how to do the bowing if I bought the Knopf for $175. As it turned out the Knopf was a wonderful bow, well worth the money and probably a lot more. And I still have it. After Albert taught me how to do the bowing so I had no problem doing it on command, he said, “Now that I showed you how to do it, you can do it on any bow.”
Never losing a chance to put me down, many years later Albert Catell came into the shop of Dov Buk. My cello was out and Albert took a look at it and asked what it was. I said, “It’s a Guadagnini.” He said, “It doesn’t look like a Guadagnini.” To which I replied, “That depends on who’s looking.”
In contrast to Albert’s unbatched romanticism was an article I read by a prominent cellist suggesting that if his students wanted to have a career, they needed to be able to play music from three centuries, not just one. The continuous subdivision required to play a great deal of twentieth century music would drain the life out of long phrases, making them impossible to breathe. Fortunately for me, having witnessed great romantic playing, I developed an immunity to playing pieces that didn’t make any sense to me and required endless counting.
Perhaps, in another post, I will continue to talk about my feelings about most contemporary music and baroque music played in the style of the day.