Kate Romano talks to Jonathan Aasgaard - soloist, chamber musician and principal cellist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
‘I think it takes around 18 months to really learn a piece’ says Jonathan Aasgaard. ‘The mind starts to work on it a long time before the instrument…'. We’re talking about his forthcoming performances of Rachmaninov’s Sonata for cello and piano with pianist Ian Buckle; one at Stapleford Granary on 26 March and one at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall Music Room the following day. ‘You’d think that this piece was standard repertoire’, says Jonathan. ‘It popped up now and again in my concert programmes, but you fall into a track with repertoire. You have your ‘go-to’ pieces - for me, Bach, Beethoven Brahms - the music which influences you when you are shaping your musical life - and this wasn’t one of them’.
2023, marking 150 years since Rachmaninov's birth, was the catalyst for Jonathan to ‘learn it properly’. ‘Learning music is a multi-layered process’ he says. ‘As the performance gets closer, you become analytical and critical… I start to find recordings dissatisfying - this is all part of the process of knowing a piece - and you become critical of the score too. It’s like you have to break it apart then start to reconstruct it and there will be all sorts of interesting debates with the pianist along the way, about phrasing for example’.
Slow learning with fast thinking was also Rachmaninov’s own preferred method. One of the most outstanding pianists of his generation, his practice technique was recounted by Charles Lynch, who had piano lessons with Rachmaninov in the late 1930s. Lynch tells how he overheard Rachmaninov practising Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 no 6 (‘double thirds’) at ‘such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise it because so much time elapsed between each finger stroke at the next’. Looking at his watch, Lynch concluded that Rachmaninov worked at a pace of around 20 seconds per bar on a piece that would take two minutes to play.
‘There are different ways into a piece’ says Jonathan. ‘First the practical things - the nuts and bolts, the technical issues. Then the analytical things; what’s the point of the piece? What is its architecture? Then finally, there is a breakthrough moment and for me that’s a physical sensation to do with the cello and the body when you know you are doing the right things. Until then, it can feel a bit stiff and wooden but when you find a sensation in your body where the music is located, you’re not manufacturing it any more … it's coming from inside and you are creating in real time with the music itself. It’s not cerebral - it's totally physical.’
The Sonata for cello and piano was the last piece of chamber music that Rachmaninov composed. Written in 1901, the year after the perennially beloved Second Piano Concerto, it has all the features of his instantly recognisable style: expansive soaring tunes, sombre harmonies, the passionate, almost obsessive repetition of single notes, bell-like sonorities and complex notational collages in the piano writing. ‘I like the symphonic scale of it, but I also like to find the intimacy’. Jonathan says. ‘I don’t want to lose the lovely intricate detail. Its chamber music first and foremost’.
Rachmaninov’s wide and lasting appeal lies in this intricate detail. For all the generous, memorable melodies, it’s the clever build up, the savouring of anticipation and satisfying arrival of these melodies and their subsequent working-out which make him (in Gerard McBurney’s words) a ‘great clockworker of music’. Rachmaninov said that there were places in his concertos and symphonies that were ‘written in a single breath’ whilst his short pieces ‘always required meticulous care and hard work’. The Sonata for cello and piano combines broad lyrical brushstrokes and fervent emotion with chiselled craftsmanship and opulent instrumental writing; a masterful and exhilarating conclusion to Rachmaninov’s chamber music composition.