Cellist and ChamberStudio coach Christoph Richter offers his wisdom on quartet life

Christoph Richter

How can young chamber music groups best set themselves up to succeed?

You must want to play in a quartet, and not just do it because you don’t have enough solo work. That doesn’t work.

It’s important to have a vision for your group, and part of that vision must be to get as close as possible to this wonderful repertoire. That has nothing to do with the commercial aspect, although of course you have to survive.

As young players you have to be very inventive, to have a lot of ideas. I once heard a leading artists’ agent speak about what you can do as a string quartet to get concerts, to survive. She said you have to ask yourself what your ‘face’ is. What is special about your career? Why should people ask you to play a Mozart quartet rather than another group? For example you could specialise in a certain style, like Quatuor Mosaïques or the London Haydn Quartet. This could be your ‘face’. You can develop from that – Quatuor Mosaïques now plays Schumann and even Bartók – but you have to find an identity, so a promoter knows why they should come to you. Identity can mean many different things but you have to have an answer to that question. To play well is not enough.

The main thing is to work hard so as not to offer people any opportunities to criticise you – for playing out of tune, for example. Also, the everyday management of the quartet should be divided, so that someone is responsible for the travel, another for organising music, another for the programmes. I learnt this from quartets like the Guarneri and Cleveland.

What should players consider when they’re deciding whom to form a string quartet with?

It’s more important that you have a musical feeling together than that you are at exactly at the same level. You can train and practise to develop your level, but if players come from totally different musical worlds I wouldn’t do it. For example, you have to agree that you want to play Haydn in a historically informed way, or to be really careful with your vibrato in Haydn and Mozart. If one player prefers a Romantic style and another Classical, it’s difficult to come together.

How can groups avoid musical conflict?

You will have tension in a quartet, but you can help to overcome it by trying not to hurt each other. We should always try to speak in friendly words and not attack each other. That sometimes happens when tempers fray – but quartets only work if we all know that we respect each other and don’t mean to be destructive.

Maybe it’s a good thing if a colleague continues to do something that disturbs you, even when you’ve told them so – we’re not always right. If players have different feelings about the music and can’t reconcile them by analysing the context then it’s important to try the various versions, with a lot of good will. If you try something new saying, ‘You really like it like this?’ and play it horribly, it doesn’t work. But if you say, ‘Okay, let’s try it that way,’ that’s showing respect. After all, why should you be so much more wrong than me? If a solution is still not clear then try one version in the concert, with all your heart. Afterwards you can digest, record and hear it back, and maybe it will be better than you thought. There have been many times when I was very sure about my idea but when I listened to another possibility I was totally convinced. We need to be open when we play string quartets.

As a coach, what is the best way to change someone’s approach?

You have to give good reasons. I can’t say, ‘I feel it’s that way’ – that’s not a way to teach. The most important thing is to help students find their own way of doing something. They shouldn’t play my way, or my teacher’s way. I can only talk about it and point some things out, but they have to decide what they want to do.

Encouraging students to discover the personal side of the music can really help them develop their interpretations. I had a wonderful experience with a group at Chetham’s School once. They played Mendelssohn Op.13 quite well and were obviously curious. So I told them the story of the 18-year-old Mendelssohn writing this quartet after the death of Beethoven, of how he had studied Beethoven’s quartets intensively and had played the violin in the Berlin premiere of the Ninth Symphony. Op.13 is full of parallels to Beethoven’s quartets: the bass line in the last movement is nearly the same as the bass line in Op.132, for example, apart from the rhythm. The first violin doesn’t play the last bars of the first movement of Op.13, I think as a sign from Mendelssohn to Beethoven. I told this young quartet all these stories and made it personal. They played it again and it was so beautiful. I’ll never forget that. It was just because I told them the story of the quartet.

What other sorts of knowledge do chamber musicians need?

Players should understand the architecture of music by their mid-20s, at the latest. They should know the harmony and architecture of a piece. I’m sometimes surprised how long it takes a group to find out what key they’re actually playing in. It’s incredibly important. I don’t think students do enough of this sort of work, although it’s understandable: first you have to learn your instrument, to get a good level.

At the time Haydn and Mozart wrote their quartets there were books with descriptions of the different keys. Johann Matheson in 1713 or Christian Schubart in 1784/85 wrote down a whole scheme – Schubart called B flat minor the suicidal key, for example. I never heard about this from any of my teachers, but if you play in a string quartet it’s important to find a sound as four people in F major, for example, not just a prototype sound.

What are the quickest ways for a group to improve?

If you’re behind in learning a piece, or playing with people who don’t know each other well, an emergency measure is to give yourself a few hours to work on intonation. The tones of the players melt together and you sound more together. There are scales by Mogens Heimann, a student of Carl Flesch, who wrote exercises for bowing, harmony and intonation for quartets. He asks you to play a chord and you move the 3rd around the group, starting with the first violin, then the second violin and so on. It’s very interesting for players to understand exactly what the 3rd is. If it’s a major 3rd it’s probably lower than you think – people tend to play the 3rd as the leading note to the tonic resolution, but that doesn’t help in Schubert, Mozart or Haydn. This is very detailed work, but important. You can also play scales together, or start a rehearsal session with a Bach chorale. A lot of established groups do this and it’s fantastic for intonation, voice leading, sound, and understanding harmony.

Players can also try sitting back to back rather than facing, so they can’t look at each other. This really opens your ears.

How important is visual contact between members of a group?

Many groups rely too heavily on their eyes for ensemble. If I’m trying to play together with the first violinist and I look at them for a cue, we will not be together. If I try to catch the moment the bow moves on the string by sight I will be too late, or too early because I anticipate it. It can be difficult with partners I don’t play with regularly. They say, ‘Why don’t you look at me?’ but I don’t want to because we won’t be together. I can feel the right moment but if I rely on my eyes I miss it. I find it very distracting if people look at each other the whole time.

What do you think of the trend for chamber groups to stand up in performance?

I have a problem with this. Both the visual effect and the effect on the sound can distract me quite a lot. I recently heard a concert where the cellist was sitting behind a forest of his colleagues’ music stands. Sometimes I close my eyes before I know whether a quartet is sitting or standing and I can tell the difference. To my ears it sounds less homogeneous when violinists are standing. The main reason they do it is so the violinists feel physically freer and can play more how they want. That’s because they were trained standing up. Throughout their life they practise and play concerts standing and only in chamber music do they sit, so they might not feel comfortable.

Where do you think the cellist should sit?

Again, in auditions I sometimes close my eyes before players come in and ask myself whether the cello is sitting on the outside or inside. It is probably personal but every time I am happy about the sound, I look up and the cello is sitting outside. It’s becoming more common that for Haydn the cellist sits next to the first violinist, with the second violin opposite. I don’t recommend it, though, because the second violin might not be heard, although that depends on the player.

It sometimes seems that groups who move around a lot when they play get a stronger reaction from the audience. Is this something young quartets should aspire to?

No, I think, players should move naturally – this can be more or less, but nobody should learn choreography. It was interesting that when the Arcadia Quartet won the London International String Quartet Competition in 2012, they were one of the best groups in the first rounds, but they were always in the top two or three, not first. But in the Beethoven round they played Op.59 No.2 and they made their entire focus the music. They played for themselves, so meaningfully, so well, that none of the jury even moved – there was total silence. They didn’t make any show, or look at each other – they just played pure music. We should be careful that we produce musicians and not show stars. There’s a young German quartet that is fantastic, but I can’t go to their concerts because I can’t look at them. They enjoy that they are such good players and that’s their right, but it should never be more important than the music that you play.

Interview by Ariane Todes