For my undergraduate Dissertation at Cambridge in 1986 I read dozens of C18th and early C19th Cello Methods. I was struck by the number of references to chordal accompaniments especially for – but not limited to – recitative. Later this developed into an article for Early Music and a project together with violinist John Holloway centred around performances and a recording for Novalis of Corelli’s Op 5 Sonatas.
Since then others have written about it and research goes on. Valerie Walden’s book 100 Years of Violoncello (CUP) details the evidence from C19th Methods which were beyond the scope of my article, and Swiss academic Claudio Bacciagalupi has written a very detailed paper, including details of C19th examples of recits realised on the cello. He also organised a seminar on the subject at Bern Hochschule where young cellists were encouraged to try it. This was bucking the trend for modern conservatoire training which tends to be focussed on solo repertoire despite the fact that only a tiny fraction ever become soloists. With examples from the very earliest days right up into the C20th, it seems that since the cello’s inception around 1670 there has only been a short period around the middle of the C20th that cellists were not actively engaged in attempting this kind of accompaniment in one form or another. Margaret Campbell (The Great Cellists) writes about the cello’s ‘Liberation from the Bass Line’. For a while cellists became so obsessed with this meta-narrative, that the tradition of adding improvised chords – perhaps even ordinary accompaniment - became something of a lost art.
At the Bern seminar I met Claudio Ronco, a very fine Italian cellist who demonstrated his wonderfully florid style of accompanying C19th Italian recit with such fantasy. It is rare but very exciting to meet other cellists who are attempting to rise to the challenge. It is even rarer to find conductors who are willing to experiment. Like learning to ride a bicycle, the only way to learn to do it is by doing it. Like learning to conduct, one of the difficulties of realising figured bass on the cello, is getting chances to do it. Not every musician is willing to give it a chance. Another violinist who encouraged me was Andrew Manze. I added quite a few chords in his Concerti Grossi recordings of Handel and Geminiani for hmusa with AAM, and we also recorded Corelli’s Sonata in C Op5 in this way.
It was not an enquiring, curious young musician, but an enquiring, curious elderly one who first gave me the opportunity to really get going with this technique in opera. A certain conductor, fast approaching 80, was about to begin recit rehearsals for what people were saying was probably going to be his last recording or even performance of his favourite composer Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito. I described the technique to him.
“There’s lots of evidence that some of them did it,” I said “I can do it if you like.”
“Alright, try it.” he said, somewhat grudgingly.
After a while, as well as his comments to the singers and the wonderful Ronnie Schneider at the fortepiano, he was making detailed suggestions to me about chord spacings, octave and dynamic. Then I realised that he was smiling to himself. He was genuinely enjoying the dramatic possibilities it offered. In fact, as he would say, it tickled his fancy. He then invited me to accompany the recits in his next ‘probably last’ Mozart recording, Cosi fan Tutte with OAE. At those recording sessions in Watford, he said he didn’t want to hear Mozart recits any other way. He had also joked that, like Frederick the Great he had his own personal cellist. (Around that time I was Principal cello in OAE, the Philharmonia, and then the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and I had managed to arrange my diary so that I was usually there whenever he was conducting one of those orchestras.) The fact that, after 50 years of conducting Mozart operas, he was open to new ways of doing things is something truly magnificent. I think it is one of the many qualities that make, for instance his Mozart Symphony recordings with the SCO such an astonishing achievement. Experience worn lightly. Sir Charles Mackerras. What a Legend.
Mozart Clemenza di Tito SCO/Mackerras (DG)
Mozart Cosi, OAE/Mackerras (Chandos)
‘Corelli Op5: Violino e Violone o Cimbalo?’
(Improvised Chordal Accompaniment on the cello) Early Music 1998
Corelli Op5 Sonatas, Trio Veracini (Novalis 150 128-2)