An interview with Anssi Karttunen
By Elizabeth Lesar
Cellist Anssi Karttunen is guest soloist with ARTEK's January 26, 2012 Art of the Early Keyboard concert at Immanuel Lutheran Church. At rehearsal with Gwendolyn Toth on January 18, he spoke with me about the upcoming ARTEK concert.
Q-I was just wondering if you’ve ever performed the Beethoven sonata with a modern grand piano, and if so what are the differences in approach that you’ll be taking, if any, in this upcoming performance with an actual 18th-century fortepiano?
A-Well, I think that the first time I would have played it, many years ago, I learned it on modern instruments, and especially with these early Beethoven sonatas I always felt uncomfortable. And in those days I didn’t know why I felt uncomfortable. I remember very clearly the first rehearsal of this sonata on the classical period piano and classical period cello when immediately all the questions that I didn’t even know to ask were answered by the instruments themselves. The early Beethoven sonatas are probably the best examples of something that immediately works the right way. Later on it was possible for me to go back to the modern instruments, knowing what the ideal balance is. I don’t think I would have ever understood it had I not had the experience of playing the sonatas with both types of instruments.
Q-That leads right into my second question. This sonata is one of the earlier of the five Beethoven cello sonatas. Can you give us a sense of how these earlier Beethoven cello sonatas differ from the later ones? Would it have anything to do with the fact that Beethoven wasn’t yet deaf when he wrote the first two?
A-No, I don’t think it’s about that, it’s really that with the two early opus 5 sonatas, I feel them as being piano sonatas with a cello accompaniment.
Q Does that have something to do with the fact that Beethoven himself was a piano player?
A-Obviously yes, and also the modern idea of a cello sonata, a kind of duo sonata, didn't exist. This is the period when it was being invented. So the relationship wasn't quite stable in these early sonatas. Later on, in the third sonata which is Opus 69, there you feel he's arrived at the relationship which is stable and with many less problematic passages. Here in the first two Opus 5 sonatas, you can really feel he's walking on a ground where no one has walked before. There had been Mozart piano with violin sonatas, but there had been no cello and piano sonatas. So he's trying out what's going to work. In Opus 5, what is really fantastic is that you constantly have to change the role from being the important string player to finding, how do I accompany the piano? How do I get out of the way of the piano completely? Historically, they are two sonatas that are completely unique, because before that there were just baroque cello sonatas, which are completely different things. After that Beethoven gets to the third sonata, where he's established the completely new relationship. There are probably about 15 years in between, and he'd done a lot during that time. So, to completely understand these [early] sonatas you have to have played or heard them with the right instruments. I don’t think it’s about being orthodox or being academic about it. It’s about letting the instruments themselves tell the story.
Q-Regarding the Schubert sonatina, this work was originally scored for violin accompaniment, not cello. Can you comment at all about the transcription or maybe talk about the edition that you're using, or any differences that you see in a cello versus a violin performance?
A-It’s interesting that in probably eight cello piano recitals out of ten, you see a Schubert sonata which is always the same one, the Arpeggione Sonata, which is also a transcription because it was written for a fortepiano and arpeggione, an instrument which has disappeared out of history. For various reasons we thought it would be interesting to play a Schubert sonata that isn t the Arpeggione Sonata, and the fact that we're transcribing a violin sonata isn't a problem, because the other one would also have been a transcription. In fact, I've been interested to see that in the early editions of these sonatinas, they always say that a sonata is for an instrument and a piano. A string instrument, which would naturally have been the violin. But he doesn't specify.
I’ve done this cello transcription myself. There are several existing transcriptions as well. Even in today’s rehearsal with Gwen, we’ve been adapting as we work on it. I feel that transcription is an interesting art, and an art that has been slightly forgotten, because now we have such fantastic players that people often play things just because they CAN play them; well I have the technique to play it just as written and I don't actually need to transcribe it for technical reasons. But transcription used to be an art in itself, and the really good transcription for me is one that you don't notice that it's a transcription. It should sound organic, as though this is the way the piece would have been written. We're constantly adapting and finding out things like, yes I could do that, but if he had written it for the cello would be have written it right there or would he have put it in a different register?
Q-So there’s been no change in key?
A-No, we really follow the text, we don’t change the music. But it's a question of basically finding which octave you play in. Again it’s just like in the Beethoven, you just have to listen to the instruments. It’s not about the theory of how it has to look, but how the instruments sound with this piece of music.
Q-And finally, can you tell us a little bit about the cello that you’re going to be playing in next week’s performance?
A-I’m going to be using the same cello I use nowadays for most everything. It’s made in Cremona, Italy by Francesco Ruggieri in the 1670’s. It’s willow, beech, and spruce, a very unusual combination, but it's one that he liked. It's an instrument that's gone through all the possible modifications that history made to stringed instruments, and it has survived them all. This week I'm playing with a modern symphony orchestra in New Jersey, and the moment I’m finished I’ll change and put the gut strings on, and then it will be back to being halfway between a baroque cello and a modern cello.
Click here to go to the GEMS box office website, where you can buy tickets for this performance on The Art of the Early Keyboard Series, January 26 at 8 pm.