Playing Debussy and Ravel on gut strings

David WatkinTue 7th February 2012

David Watkin, cellist with the Eroica Quartet, explains his ensemble's recent recording challenge

We were delighted that our world-premiere recording of Mendelssohn’s original version of his Octet was the debut release of Resonus Classics (the world's first solely digital classical label) last year. Even more exciting now is our first foray beyond the 19th century with a new recording of Debussy and Ravel Quartets. Some people will be wondering why an ‘early music’ chamber group is recording Debussy and Ravel, so it might be interesting to open a door on the group’s process of preparing to perform these great works.

In 1980, when the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians was published, the idea of a whole orchestra of instruments from Beethoven’s day was considered impossible. For us, the only difference in our instruments is that we have plain gut and wound gut strings rather than steel or nylon. Natural gut produces a richer, more complex wave than the equivalent inorganic material. In the mid-20th century (about the same time triangular cheese was invented) most players decided that steel and nylon were louder and more reliable. (My teacher, William Pleeth, was one of the die-hards who kept his gut strings.) So, apart from that distinctive gut sound, we can’t be called ‘period instrument’ – and we certainly don’t have wigs (although Peter’s sideburns are getting a bit Edwardian again since starring in the BBC film Eroica). But we do think that old advice from Harnoncourt – that what’s in your heart and mind is more important than what’s in your hands – applies just as much to Debussy and Ravel as to earlier composers.

Stravinsky’s modernist dictum that the performer should follow the composer’s instructions ‘like a slave’ sets a very handy watershed. He was fed up with virtuosi taking liberties, but also with players looking for harmonic shape and inflection in music. In the same way, Schoenberg had to write ‘always soft’ at the deadpan opening of Verklärte Nacht otherwise his Viennese performers would want to shape it. When he revised it in California in 1942 he only needed to write ‘very soft’. From Bach to Mahler, tonal composers wanting such special effects had to make a plea to play ‘sempre pianissimo’ because players would feel compelled to inflect the music’s harmonic contours.

So on which side of this fence do Debussy and Ravel sit? They were certainly radicals, straddling that great seismic shift in music around the early 20th century, but does their music have a grounding in the performance traditions of the past? Stravinsky delighted in barbarously shattering the calm of pre-WW1 Paris with The Rite of Spring (although it was equally Nijinsky’s turned-in feet that provoked ‘the riot’). By contrast, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune shocks by its delicate intensity. More importantly, although Debussy and Ravel used whole tone and pentatonic harmony, they didn’t leave the music’s tonaltiy behind in the way that Schoenberg did. Their music gets pretty harmonically diffuse, and tonality can shift dramatically – but it is always there.

As a player, it’s sometimes difficult to see where that gravitational pull is acting on the music, but we aren’t free-floating in space. Many of the harmony-based performance habits of the 19th century hold good: use vibrato to inflect and colour special notes, but not as a blanket; let the voice glide rather than lose the legato; dynamic indications don’t rule out shapes that point the music’s contours. This approach is backed up by early recordings, including those of the Capet Quartet made in the 1920s – which we found at once inspiring and ‘challenging’. Debussy and Ravel were among the first composers to live into the modern age of recording. The dots on the page are only a small part of the story. We can hear with our own ears the answers to a question always near the front of my mind:  how did the composer expect their contemporaries to play when the ink was still wet?

Visit the Eroica Quartet's website for information on the ensemble's current projects; visit Resonus Classics' website for information on new releases, including, in March, the world-premiere recording of Judith Bingham’s solo organ work 'The Everlasting Crown' played by Stephen Farr on the organ of St Albans Cathedral

David Watkin

David Watkin is cellist with the Eroica Quartet, who continue to astonish audiences and critics with their radical interpretations of 19th-century music.

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