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A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music

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Last week I came across a fascinating book by musicologist Robert Donington entitled A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music.
A Performer's guide to baroque performance
About the book
We are playing a lot of baroque music at the moment so I was interested to know what the author would say – although I expected it to be rather dry, a bit like the ornaments’ section of Grade 5 Theory.  Imagine my delight then when , opening the book more or less at random, I came across the following impassioned statement:

“We are of this modern age; and much has changed which could not be changed back even if we so desired. But not our deeper human nature, and not the essential musicianship so intimately bound up with our human nature. These do not change. The start of good baroque performance is knowing that there were ordinary human beings under those concealing wigs and crinolines. Obviously there is discipline in great baroque music: but it is a discipline of strong feeling, strongly ordered. Cold formality and cautious reticence have no place in good baroque style.”

More inspiring quotes 
A little further on he continues:“In baroque music the performer is king. It is baroque spontaneity we are trying to recapture. It is always a mistake in rehearsal to press a point of style against the convictions of the musicians concerned.”

This is worth buying
I couldn’t borrow the book so I wrote the quotes out by hand.I’ll  buy a copy of his book now to find out what else he has to say.  If the rest is as full of feeling as this, it will be a joy to read.

Unaccompanied Bach cd

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This Wednesday I’m going to be recording an unaccompanied Bach cd of cello suite no 1 at Wadenhoe Church. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to other cellists’ recordings, most of which are excellent,  and also recordings of unaccompanied Bach by violinists. With so many superb interpretations around why bother to record it yourself, you may ask? A good question, especially as I usually find solo playing quite stressful.
Bach cd
Why record an unaccompanied Bach cd?
I suppose the main reason is that I love the music, and live performance is so ephemeral and subjective that I would like to have a something permanent which will always remind me of how I play. Performing unaccompanied is revealing and technically demanding, but this suite is very happy in mood.

What was Bach’s life like when he wrote this?
The suite is in G major, one of the most relaxed and calm keys, and was written at a time when  Bach was in his mid thirties, healthy, well respected and had a secure job at the court in Cothen. Some of Bach’s greatest music, including the six Brandenburg Concertos, was written at this time and I think this unaccompanied suite reflects Bach’s confident state of mind. Above all, it expresses that wonderful sense of balance that is so characteristic of Bach’s music and shows a great love of life.

About key colours
About forty years after Bach’s death a scholar called Christian Shubart’s  wrote a book on key characteristics and described  G major  like this: ” Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love – in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed in this key.” What wonderful words. If I can manage to achieve just a little of that in my playing of the first cello suite, I’ll be pleased.


Arrival of the Queen of Sheba wins award

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Arrival of the Queen of Sheba violin and cello duet wins award

We were  pleased to find out that last week our performance of Arrival of the Queen of Sheba violin and cello duet was chosen to be first on the  Best You Tube Videos of Handel compilation by  – especially as there are over 4000 videos of Handel on the internet.

More about the duet and filming
The award winning string duet is our own arrangement. We were lucky enough to have an excellent film crew –  Lux Technical – and  recording engineer – Hugh Davies – and English Heritage very kindly allowed us to make the film at Kirby Hall which is an ideal setting for classical music.

More about the Queen of Sheba
The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
 music is famous,but who was the Queen of Sheba herself? This work is part of Handel’s oratorio Solomon which is based on the romantic, not to say sexy,  old testament story in the Book of Kings which  tells how the queen arrives in Jerusalem as a guest of King Solomon and  ends up spending the night with him.
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

What would Handel have thought?
 Handel originally wrote the piece for full orchestra, not string duo, but I imagine he would have been pleased that nearly three hundred years after it was written his music was  still being arranged for  many different combinations of instruments because it was so popular. He’d probably have been impressed that he had such a high profile on the internet too!


Improvising in Classical Music

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 Improvising in Classical Music

Classical music is so superb and technically demanding that technique and interpretation are normally the main areas focused on. This can result in a sort of freezing perfectionism, where you feel unable to play anything on your instrument unless you have been practising it for hours every day for the last few weeks.

I was never taught to improvise when I was a student, but having recently returned to classical music professionally after a long time I’ve been determined to overcome some of my former insecurities and now I start practice with improvisation –  either just playing freely to express how I feel, or playing tunes by ear.

The great thing about improvisation is that it can’t be wrong: and it’s this sense of freedom that is such a welcome balance from the intensity of classical training. In my experience improvisation also encourages straightforward enthusiasm and love of playing your instrument and helps give pupils the feeling that the teacher is responding to them individually, rather than carrying out a formal instruction session.

Of course all the best interpretations of classical music sound as if the performer has made the music their own, and this is another sense in which regular improvisation can be incredibly beneficial: in improvisation the music really is your own and you alone are its master.


La Cumparista

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We recently recorded our string duet of the famous tango La Cumparsita by Rodriguez. Here are Roger’s comments:

Music is not always beautiful. Music is real. It is alive. Music is something from the soul and any copy will not have the same vitality as an original idea.  When Jo and I rehearse  we are thrown into a drama. Do we agree? Do we argue? You will see this in the drama in La Cumparsita on our website video. First we argued, yes. Was it sexy? Was it sad? Well, we took opposite corners in this and fought it out; not with words, but in the performance.
La Cumparsita by Rodriguez

Following the violinists improvised opening there’s a powerful claim on the senses from the cello … how can the violinist follow this passionate cry? The violinist moved into the character then, not of the overbearing pride of the man – determined to assert himself at all costs – but as if seeing into the sorrow that the tango also depicts as the sad, haunted world of such a dancer. It was here that I found the soul of the music dwelt; always to be matched and occasionally mastered by the sensuous cello playing.  RS

Stanislavsky and music performance

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Stanislavsky and music performance

Years ago I realised that the Russian actor Stanislavsky’s suggestions for bringing characters to life on stage could help music performance too. One of his main ideas is that an actor must use his imagination to recreate the  inner feelings of a role and allow it to take on a life of its own. Translated into concert performance this  means concentrating on your interpretation of the music, rather than on nerves or technique.
Stanislavsky and music performance

Stanislavsky as Othello

What makes a good concert?
Some of the concerts I have been most affected by have somehow managed to achieve this illusive sense of vitality. Surprisingly they have not been by the greatest performers; but they have all involved commitment and creativity. One was an informal concert of Vivaldi’s Double Violin Concerto  by two young children, which was conducted so imaginatively by Emmanuel Hurwitz that none of the violinists’ mistakes mattered. The other was a Rachmaninoff piano piece played by a teenage boy, who was not technically perfect, but put his whole soul into the performance.

How much does technique matter ?
Is the message then never to worry about technique? Not at all,technique is still vitally important: but ultimately what people remember is communication



Fedora Strings at Kirby Hall

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Fedora Strings at Kirby Hall
We chose to film our Fedora Strings videos at Kirby Hall. Much of this grand Elizabethan home was neglected or destroyed by varying owners before it was rescued by English Heritage, but although the main structure of the building is all that remains, its beauty is powerful and affecting. Kirby Hall is close to our home base and staff were generous enough to allow us to film our three videos there. Our film crew were Lux Technical: a team of three imaginative young men who have just formed their own company.
Fedora Strings at Kirby Hall


A different setting for each recording
As we hadn’t visited Kirby Hall before we weren’t sure which rooms would be best to use, but Jamie – one of the Lux team – went exploring and found settings which suited each of the pieces. The Spanish-looking backdrop for La Cumparsita was really discovered by default: it had started raining by then and this was the only outside part of the building that had any cover, and even that was pretty minimal.

It’s wonderful playing string music in such a responsive setting and it reminded me of other buildings or works of art that have somehow increased in vitality and presence even though they are damaged and incomplete: the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Venus de Milo statue… Wouldn’t it be good if this rather weird rule could apply to humans too?!


Kirby Hall website:

Lux technical website: