Ralph Kirshbaum offers his recipe for making great chamber music

Ralph Kirshbaum

Cellist and pedagogue Ralph Kirshbaum was in a piano trio with György Pauk and Peter Frankl for 30 years. Here he answers questions about the art of chamber music playing, and offers advice on how groups can get the most out of masterclasses


What is the secret of success for a piano trio?

The essence of any good chamber ensemble is working with players whom you respect as fellow musicians and like as individuals. If you have one and not the other it’s not a recipe for longstanding success.


Often groups get together as students. How can they know at that stage that they respect each other musically?

I think you know instinctively, and immediately, in my experience. I played in a piano trio with György Pauk and Peter Frankl for 30 years. I had just arrived in London and they were looking for a cellist. In the first instance, because György Pauk was away, I went to Peter Frankl’s home and we began playing the first movement of the Brahms E minor Sonata. I knew after the first eight bars that this was a musician I felt total empathy with. Whatever problems there might be in working out the fine details, we breathed music in the same way.

Of course in time you discover other things in working together, but you know whether that instinctive musical spark is there and whether you have a shared musical outlook. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to agree one hundred per cent in every style and nuance of music, but you sense that basic musical impulse very quickly.


How do you learn to deal with musical disagreements and to resolve things?

That goes to the essence of how two individuals relate in any relationship, not just a musical one. Either you have mutual respect and deal with each other from that point of view, or you have humour and deal with it from a humorous point of view. Or you insult one another, but that doesn’t go very far!


Does that happen?

It does. Sometimes inadvertently, because if you don’t know someone well at the outset you might say something that insults them. But at the same time, you have to be able to be honest with each other. You have to respect each other, but that includes respecting everyone’s right to say openly and honestly what they feel. That might be something you don’t agree with. Are we talking about the music and what we’re trying to achieve with a musical idea? Or are we in some way attacking the other person, belittling or insulting them? It’s about drawing that distinction.

In my experience people know if what you’re saying is in an effort to bring the music alive and to understand what the composer is trying to say. We use interchange like, ‘Let’s try this or try that’, ‘Could you try a little bit more of this?’, ‘What do you think about that?’ rather than, ‘What you’re doing is lousy’, ‘I don’t like that at all’, ‘That’s terrible’, where you’re inviting aggression. Keep focused on the music and not on personal attack.


You’ve been a soloist as well as a chamber music player. Is there a difference in the mindsets required?

For me there isn’t any real difference. Whether you’re the soloist or in a group you have to judge balances and understand the musical architecture and where you fit. There is perhaps a concept of the soloist thinking ‘I want to be sure I’m heard at every instant,’ but for me the two are much the same in terms of the sensitivity and listening that’s required. Sometimes as a soloist you have to be at the forefront in the musical dialectic and to be able to assume that character, or you’re not going to be a successful soloist. But there are times when you’re not the primary voice. You’re secondary or complementary and that requires you listening and knowing your sound, and whether you’re playing with a section or an individual and how you adjust. The challenge is not dissimilar.

The dissimilarity might be that because of time limitations a soloist usually has the final say on how to phrase something. In a trio there are three individuals working and rehearsing together for lengthy periods discussing the fine points. Each person is able to enter into that dialectic with total confidence and freedom to express themselves.


Is it possible to combine solo and chamber careers?

Absolutely. Almost everybody does these days. We can thank Stern, Rose and Istomin, because they had significant solo careers as well as their trio. Those were the days when if an artist came in and said, ‘I want to play a chamber music project with X, Y and Z’, their manager would say, ‘Well then, you better find yourself another manager, because if you want to be a soloist you need to be perceived as a soloist.’ It was as harsh as that. Those three broke that mould.


Is it easier to achieve that career balance being in a piano trio than in a quartet?

It’s more rare to see a soloist playing in quartets, but that’s changing. There’s the example of Thomas Zehetmair, James Ehnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Tabea Zimmerman. I haven’t heard all of them, but I’m sure they’re wonderful because they’re wonderful musicians. They do what I did in those years I was playing in a trio. We played around 15 concerts a year and we would have projects. There would be a period of two or three weeks, three times a year that we would devote to trios. The rest of the year we’d focus on our solo careers. That’s what these players are doing. We think of quartets as requiring working and living together 365 days a year because of the repertoire, but these players are opening up other possibilities.


Is the role of the cellist different in quartets and piano trios?

I don’t think the role is different, because the cellist is obviously providing the bass support. Perhaps in trios there are more moments where the cellist is a soloist, where the passagework is elaborate and demanding, and the violin is an accompaniment and the pianist provides the overall harmonic basis. But there are incredible places in the quartet repertoire where the cello is elevated to the soloist role.

Sometimes in quartet playing you’re working hard to speak as one voice, making decisions in that way, whereas as a trio we felt quite free, although not chaotically so. We discussed things – it wasn’t that one person would play a phrase one way and the next another way completely. We’d arrive at what we felt was the phrasing we wanted as it developed through a movement, but in actually realising that phrase we were quite free. I loved that aspect.


How can players get the most out of a masterclass?

They have to approach it as if they’re giving a performance and the coach is perhaps going to open up other possibilities in terms of how they conceive of what they’re playing. I get annoyed when someone comes and it’s obvious they’re virtually sightreading. They say, ‘It’s quite fresh, I’ve only been working on it for ten days.’ That’s not the sort of thing to bring to a masterclass – you can take it to your teacher. You want to bring an interpretation to a masterclass. Perhaps all you’re after is some fingerings and bowings, but I’m loath to give those out. If I see something isn’t working of course I’ll make suggestions – usually I’ll offer various alternatives, so that they go away and think about it, not like a parrot writing it in. In a masterclass I’m more interested in what they’re thinking about musically, what they’re trying to say. It’s only when something is getting in the way technically that I’ll suggest a specific bowing or fingering.


To what extent do you expect students to have studied the harmony and structure of a work and how much do you see that sort of attention?

Usually not enough! When students come and play a concerto I’ll ask, ‘Who are you playing with in this passage?’ and more often than not they have no idea. I’ll point out exactly who it is and say that they need to know the score better. You need to practise with the score – so often people learn a piece from their own part, but that’s only part of the picture. It’s as if you’re a window specialist so all you see is the windows, but what about the doors, the brickwork, the rest of the architecture?

I feel strongly that they need a working knowledge of what’s going on. They don’t have to do a Schenkerian analysis of the piece, but they need to know when a harmony is shifting and the implications for the colour they’re using at that point and what the possibilities are. There’s not just one way to react, but they have to react to it somehow, not indiscriminately play through it as if nothing had happened. It’s important and I do stress this in classes.


What are the ensemble issues that come up most often when you’re coaching chamber music?

How do you articulate the character of an upbeat or, indeed, a complete musical phrase? How do you breathe it, conceive it? If you’re not conceiving and breathing it in the same way you can practise it over and over but you’re never going to arrive at a unanimous viewpoint.

Then there’s intonation. It’s hard enough to deal with intonation when you’re a solo instrumentalist playing Bach or Kodály. When you’re playing with someone else, how far do you push a tritone in terms of the tension it’s going to create in resolving to the next chord? People hear that differently; they hear leading tones differently. It was interesting playing with György Pauk all those years, because I generally hear leading tones high and he heard them much more pure – he has perfect pitch. If we were playing a phrase in unison and came to a leading tone, it was going to be out of tune. So we had to get inside each other’s skin and over time we became sensitive enough that he would slightly raise his leading tone and I would lower mine. We played perfectly in tune without even thinking about it. That’s chamber music. You have to make an adjustment. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘You have to play it the way I play it!’ When I’m working with an ensemble there are times when someone is out of tune, but it’s just that they’re not hearing the harmonic implication in the same way. Those are interesting things to work on.


If classes are public do you ever feel you have to entertain the audience?

Some people look at it as entertainment and that’s fine up to a point, but the question is, what does the group get out of it? That’s what it’s all about. What can I help them with? If that process isn’t entertaining and captivating enough, so be it. I’m not there to use them as a foil to entertain the public.


What parameters do you set yourself in masterclasses for the improvement you expect of students, and how do you know when you’ve succeeded?

I don’t go in with a set plan. I’ll go into a class with the score, they play and I react. I rely on my instinct. I can assess quickly the things I think might help them the most and that’s what I’ll go to work on. I always engage the group in this – it’s not me pontificating, saying it has to be like this – I want to know what they’re thinking. ‘Where do you feel this phrase goes? What kind of character do you want in that triplet? Well maybe you should try this.’

Not every moment is going to be revelatory, but usually in the course of a session with a group there are two or three moments when they suddenly discover something for themselves, and that is meaningful. You hear when there is something about a phrase that a group hadn’t considered and now they’re considering it. They’re not just doing what I’m telling them to do: they’re experimenting, and committing to something new.

There’s an old dictum about learning, that there’s the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis. You don’t always arrive at the synthesis inside 45 minutes, but sometimes you do. Sometimes they’ve started with one thing, I’ve provoked them to think about something else and then comes the synthesis that surprises us all. You see the smiles on their faces and the audience hears the difference. That’s exciting. When you see and hear those moments it’s so special. That’s why I love teaching. But one masterclass is a very short moment in time. It’s the work they do afterwards that is going to make the real difference.


What is your best piece of advice for a group just starting out?

The most important thing is that everyone in the ensemble studies the score; they come to rehearsals really knowing what’s going on. Their ideas are going to change as soon as they start realising the piece, because physically and emotionally you hear it in a different way when you’re sitting with the score, but they should at least be conversant with the score. Otherwise you’re going to waste a tremendous amount of time in rehearsals and meet a lot of frustrations just because one or two haven’t done that and don’t know what to listen for. Know the score.

Ariane Todes