Saturday, 24 January 2015

An encounter with Leonard Elschenbroich

Leonard Elschenbroich - Copyright © Felix Broede
Leonard Elschenbroich - Copyright © Felix Broede
The young German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich may be familiar because he has spent that last two years as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist during which time he has played 13 different concertos for the BBC, and his recordings of concertos by Dutilleux and Nino Rota were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this week. Born in Frankfurt, Elschenbroich studied at the Menuhin School before continuing his studies in Germany, and he is now based in London but has a career which takes him all over. His recent disc of music by Prokofiev and Kabalevsky, including Kabalevsky’s rarely performed Cello Concerto No 2, has recently been released on the Onyx Classics label.

I recently met up with Leonard Elschenbroich to chat about his new disc, his career so far and his plans. In person (he is 30 this year), he is personable, charming and highly articulate. We had a fascinating hour of musical talk with ranged widely. Contemporary music was a theme which cropped up throughout our interview, and clearly he is very engaged both with music and composers. But there were other interests too, and he was very keen to highlight his work with the fledgling Bolivian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Leonard Elschenbroich’s latest CD on Onyx Classics pairs Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata (with his regular pianist partner Alexei Grynyuk) with Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton). This is the second disc of Russian music which Leonard has recorded, as his previous disc for Onyx Classics paired the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with the cello version of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata (again with Alexei Grynyuk). And not just Russian music, there is also a thread of examining the work of artists under the Soviet regime. But when I ask him whether he is planning a series, he says not. When considering recordings, he tries to choose works that he wants to listen to rather than looking for a market need. It just so happened that his initial wants list had four Russian works at the top of it!

Partly this is the result of his training, as Leonard studied with a student of the great Russian cellist Daniil Shafran, who premiered the Kabalevsky concerto, and Elschenbroich had grown up with Shafran’s recording of the work with Kabalevsky conducting. He could not understand why the work not played, until he discovered the political overtones which dog Kabalevsky's reputation. Leonard comments that Shafran and Kavalevsky's recording is not ideal, it was made live and Kabalevsky is not a good conductor. This meant that there was space to re-record the piece, if Shafran had made a studio recording of it then Leonard would not have dared to record one.

Conductor Andrew Litton had recorded the Kabalevsky concerto 20 years ago with Stephen Isserlis, so the concert with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was the perfect opportunity, especially as it was going to be recorded anyway. On the disc Leonard pairs the concerto with Prokofiev's Cello Sonata, another work which he has always wanted to record. He has played the work a lot and feels that his playing partner, Alexei Grynyuk, is a phenomenal player of both Rachmaninov and Prokofiev.

It helped that there was an intriguing political angle to the pairing, with both Prokofiev and Kabalevsky coping in different ways with the Soviet Regime under Stalin. Leonard feels very clearly that things are not black and white, it is not a case of Prokofiev on one side and Kabalevsky on the other and clearly he finds this extra-musical dimension to the recording stimulating.

To provide more background, he wanted also to include the arrangements of the excerpts from Prokofiev's late stage works, and his keen interest in these works makes them far more than just fillers. He knew Cinderella from Gennady Rozhdestvensky's recording, and the Adagio was written for the whole cello section. Leonard knew Shafran's recording of the march from The Love of Three Oranges but he could not find the music to the arrangement, which is why he ended up asking the pianist Petr Limonov to make new arrangements.



Plans for his next recording are still in progress, but it will be a change from music in Soviet Russia. Instead Leonard has come up with another intriguing concept, he will be looking at music in Britain and Germany in the early part of the 20th century, featuring Frank Bridge's Oration. This dates from 1930 and is one of Bridge's works where he was influenced by the modernist composers in Germany; it is a work which Leonard played at the Proms last year and has the advantage of being another work which is not well known, even to cellist, again undeservedly so.

He clearly remains his interest in Russian music too. Though his term as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist has finished, he has further projects with the BBC and will be playing Prokofiev's late Sinfonia Concertante. The work was premiered by Rostropovich in 1952, and Prokofiev had revised his earlier Cello Concerto for Rostropovich. Leonard feels that in many ways the earlier version of the work is the more successful of the two, with the later revision having a little too much Rostropovich in it. But Leonard suggests that a recording of the two works back to back on disc would be extremely interesting and valuable; let us hope a recording company is listening!

Leonard Elschenbroich - Copyright © Felix BroedeLeonard Elschenbroich started playing the cello when he was 5, but admits that he was not very active until he came to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School in the UK at the age of 11. When I ask what it was like being in a boarding school in England, he says that it hardly felt like England. The pupils at the school are so international and form their own little world. They play intensively, and he loved being able to play a great deal of chamber music and to talk music, as his friends in Germany had not been so musical. He feels that this concentration on playing together defines a Menuhin School pupil, and that he can feel definite connections with former pupils whatever their era. He left the school at 14, and returned to Germany to attend a regular high school, which was really strange and took a lot of acclimatisation. But he enjoyed having the afternoons to himself, whereas at the Menuhin School the whole day was timetabled. He also took a year off in his late teens, spending the year just playing the cello without doing any concerts. He comments that this lack of structure was a challenge, but he feels that it was valuable to have the freedom to explore the extremes of technique and stretch his boundaries in ways that are not possible if you have a concert schedule.

Leonard Elschenbroich was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist from 2012 to 2014. Because of the way the scheme is organised, with announcements in the summer for starting in the Autumn, Leonard's diary was already very full, and he had to fit BBC engagements in around other existing ones. This means that for the first year, he played mainly mainstream repertoire concertos but for the second year was able to explore others. In total he has played 13 concertos in two years for the BBC, including learning ones by Dutilleux, Nino Rota and Penderecki. He has also a new piece commissioned from Mark Simpson which will be broadcast shortly.

Future plans with BBC Radio 3 include Alexander Goehr's Romanza, which was recorded by Jacqueline Dupre with Daniel Barenboim. Dupre is not a name that we associate with contemporary music, and Elschenbroich feels that it is wonderful to hear contemporary music played with such emotional passion.



Contemporary works for cello are clearly something which interest Leonard strongly. In addition to the a work from Mark Simpson, he has others in the pipeline. He has a continuing residency with in Bremen with the Bremen Philharmonic Society, and when we met to talk at his flat in London he had the score of a new piece which he has commissioned from the American composer Suzanne Farrin which will be premiered in Bremen as part of a concert (on Wednesday 28 January 2015) which takes Music in 20th century Faith as its inspiration. He and the accordionist Ksenija Sidorova will collaborate on a sequence of pieces which interleave Bach (on cello and on accordion), with Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce (written for cello and organ but being performed in its version for cello and accordion) and the new Suzanne Farrin work (for cello and accordion), which is itself a response to the Gubaidulina. The second half will consist of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with clarinettist Michael Collins and members of the Sitkovetsky Trio (a group, of which Elschenbroich was until recently a member).

Another of his Bremen concerts will feature a performance of John Tavener's Protecting Veil in the Liebfrauen Kirche in Bremen. Leonard will be prefixing this work by music by other composers working in the minimalist style. He will be performing music by Morton Feldman, and Kevin Volans Walk in the Gardens of Solitude besides talking to composers about a new solo piece.

Other concerts which he has planned for Bremen include an evening of baroque music which mixes Vivaldi (played with violinist Nicola Benedetti) with Bolivian baroque music (on 26 May 2015). This latter links in to one of Leonard’s other strong interests as he is a mentor to the Bolivian Philharmonic Orchestra. In the summer of 2012, Leonaard played the Saint Saens Cello Concerto with the fledgling Bolivian Philharmonic Orchestra. This group was the brainchild of the violinist Miguel Salasar and on Leonard’s first visit consisted of 20 string players plus a pianist who played the wind parts. Leonard has been mentoring the group, inviting other soloists to Bolivia to support them, as well as visiting himself (he has visited them four times so far). The orchestra is based in Santa Cruz, and the only paid orchestra in the country is in the capital, La Paz. Since Leonard's first visit to Santa Cruz, word has got round in Bolivia and now a number of professional musicians come to Santa Cruz from La Paz to join the orchestra. At Leonard’s last concert with them, there were 75 musicians and the hall, which seats 900, was full with another 200 people standing. Leonard wanted to bring some of that energy and enthusiasm to Bremen, so that Miguel Salasar will be joining with Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen to perform at the concert.

 Still in Bremen, Elschenbroich is artist in residence at Deutsche Rundfunk with MusikFest Bremen. This music festival opens with seven venues around the main square in Bremen, each presenting three concerts of 45 minutes thus allowing audience members to mix and match. For his three recitals Leonard is planning the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in the early evening concert, the Shostakovich Viola Sonata in the late concert, and a concert of contemporary music in the middle. Leonard confesses that he prefers focussed programmes, rather than mixing and matching pieces, and he feels that doing 45 minutes of contemporary music allows the listeners time to hear the subtleties and differences between the works rather than the extreme differences which can occur if modern works are simply dropped into a classical concert. In Bremen, Leonard will be performing the Mark Simpson piece, a work by Luca Lombardi which was written for him, and a new work by Ken Shimizu.

Leonard Elschenbroich - Copyright © Felix Broede
Until recently Leonard was a member of the Sitkovetsky Trio, but since leaving that ensemble he feels that his focus has changed. Whilst he still plays trios with Alexei Grynyuk and Nicola Benedetti, and still gives recitals, his focus has turned more to concertos. He wants to continue to expand his concerto repertoire, pointing out that there are 100's of cello concertos and 1000's of works for cello and that he wants to have time to explore at least some of these. Though he admits that it would be a lot of simply to listen to them all!

Other plans include a big tour across the UK with Nicola Benedetti. They will be performing a new piece written for them by Mark Antony Turnage, an unaccompanied duo and this will be the first time that the two have played together unaccompanied. Also in the programme with be Vivaldi's Four Seasons, accompanied by a hand-picked group of players. Perhaps surprisingly, Leonard is remarkably keen to play the continuo cello in this work. He has done so before, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and looks forward to the opportunities for dialogue with Nicola Benedetti.
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