One of my graduate school professors shared his strategy for preparing for auditions. Before setting foot on stage, he would listen to 20 recordings of every piece he prepared for the audition. This inspired me to commit to the same level of preparation for my own auditions. Although I had already listened to some of the pieces on the audition lists dozens of times, I decided to begin again and follow through on his challenge. The experience was transformative beyond words. Below I will share what I learned along with my personal favorite recording of each piece. As a side note, you may notice that 119 recordings is not divisible by 20. Although I did listen to 20 recordings of each and every piece, the final recording I heard was terrible. Instead of ending on a sour note, I just left the final recording out of the count! Without further ado – What I learned Listening to 119 Recordings.
Live recordings are magical.
An irresistible energy permeates live recordings. I found myself unusually drawn to live recordings despite their occasional flaws. However, certain live recordings were so excellently performed that I assumed them to be studio recordings until the rounds of applause began after the final movement. In fact, several of my favorite recordings out of the 20 recordings per piece were live recordings. For example, one of them was Natalie Clein’s Haydn C Major Concerto. These live recordings held something special that no studio performance could replace – a charismatic zest and vitality that I crave for my own performances.
The ensemble makes or breaks the performance.
Although I was primarily listening to the solo cello part of recordings, all the other instruments are indispensable. My jaw was on the floor hearing the pinpoint accuracy of Les Dissonances and Xavier Phillips playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1. The cellist was wonderful, and the orchestra was outstanding. Conversely, I nearly turned off an older recording of Schelomo not because the soloist was uninteresting, but because an out of tune oboe player ruined the spirit of the piece. Notably, the particular recording was not a live performance but was rather a studio recording.
I’m not the only one who plays out of tune.
Speaking of intonation! Some immediately recognizable cellists have recordings that are severly out of tune. This may seems harsh, but upon looking up reviews of the recordings, I found that critics agreed when a recording contained noticeably sour intonation. It reminds me of a story that Steven Isserlis tells in which he was listening to audition tapes for Prussia Cove with another jury member. Isserlis had slipped in one of his own recordings just for fun under a different name, and surprisingly did not make the cut for his own masterclass! Of course intonation is not everything, although it is perhaps more highly valued today than at any time at history. I still do feel better knowing that I am not the only one who plays out of tune, on occasion!
I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Listening to approximately 2,197 minutes of music has only whet my appetite. Each time I hear a piece again, I know better what to listen for and how to better appreciate the piece. I saw many recordings that I would love to listen to beyond the 20 I had originally planned. The more I listen, the more I hear and am amazed by all the variety and nuance that each performer brings to their individual performance. And now for a list of favorite recordings of each piece with soloist:
J.S. Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008 – Ralph Kirshbaum (If I had to choose just one recording. Thankfully there are a million more from which to choose!)
Ernest Bloch Schelomo – Steven Isserlis
F.J. Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major, Hob VIIb:1 – Natalie Clein (Live!)
Alfredo Piatti 12 Caprices, Op. 25, No. 7: Maestoso – Richard Narroway (Live performance and tutorial!)
Dmitri Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 – Xavier Phillips (Live!)
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