Sometimes an artist’s most meaningful projects arise by chance, in everyday interactions, rather than through any grand plan. So, it seems, was the case with the intrepid cellist Matt Haimovitz, whose latest enthusiasm came about in the halls of McGill University, where he has been on the faculty for more than a decade. Every so often he would run into the fortepianist Tom Beghin, who also teaches there, and they would mention a possible collaboration.
Beghin, though, insisted that Haimovitz would have to play on the gut strings that were customary in the 18th and 19th centuries, rather than the metal strings used now, otherwise the cello would drown out the fortepiano’s lighter sound. And he’d have to tune his cello to a slightly lower pitch, with the note A below middle C at a frequency of 430 Hz instead of 440, today’s standard concert pitch.
Haimovitz, who plays two concerts with pianist Estela Olevsky in the Mohawk Trail Concerts series in Charlemont on Friday and Saturday, had always been curious about period approaches to his instrument, but he’d never followed through on it.
“Partly because I was a wimp about losing my sound,” he said by phone from San Francisco, where he was playing at a music festival. His training had all been about “playing on the setup that would maximize my ability to project in a big hall over an orchestra.” The thought of compromising that lush sound, he added, “didn’t cross my mind for years.”
Finally in 2012, he bit the bullet and scheduled a concert with Beghin that included Beethoven’s cello sonata (Op. 69) and the two piano trios of Opus 70. He began investigating gut strings, finding there was extreme variation in their makeup and quality. He tried out different Baroque-style bows. It was all pretty confusing at first.
The result, though, was totally liberating. The lighter sound and crisper articulation that he could produce on his Goffriller cello opened an entirely new musical realm. “It was such a joy, playing those pieces without having to worry about balance. All of a sudden, I could play loud without having to make room for the piano. It was wonderful.”
That initial rush did not wear off. “I went all in” on period instruments, Haimovitz said with a laugh. He has just released “Beethoven, Period,” a set of the composer’s sonatas and variations for cello and piano with longtime duo partner Christopher O’Riley playing an 1823 Broadwood fortepiano. The pair have now played the complete Beethoven a number of times — on modern instruments when they have to, but in correct historical fashion whenever possible.
The alternation between the different tunings was the hardest part of the new regime for Haimovitz to accommodate. Since he has perfect pitch, “it was nauseating at first, frankly,” to get used to switching back and forth between A440 and A430. “It took a long time. Chris and I would meet up every couple of weeks and find another keyboard. And every time we would do this it would start off sounding pretty bad, and gradually [I’d be] getting more and more used to it.”
The physical differences between old and new instruments, Haimovitz explained, affect the approaches of both performers, on both macro- and micro-levels. Balances, phrase shapes, even “the life of a note, [the way] it’s already resonating in a very different, more lively way. Being able to take the effort and time to shape it. You do that on metal, of course, but it just doesn’t draw it out of you in the same way.”
For listeners, the most immediately discernible difference lies in the sound world, which can be so unlike our modern ideal of these instruments as to be alien to our ears. Proof can be found on “Beethoven, Period” in the duo’s rendition of the variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” In the seventh variation, Haimovitz’s cello drops almost to a whisper without losing its presence, while the fortepiano creates a sound so distant and magical it resembles the stars twinkling in the night sky.
That wondrous sound, Haimovitz explained, was the result of the Broadwood’s particularly expressive soft pedal. Other fortepianos they’ve used have had different characteristics that they’ve had to adapt to on the fly. Haimovitz finds this with his gut strings: Even though he always uses strings made by the Toro family in the Abruzzo region of Italy, “they’re handmade, so it’s a little bit sometimes like riding in a rodeo — you don’t know what it’s going to throw at you at any given second. But that’s gotten to be a fun thing about them. It’s kind of one more interaction, give and take with my instrument.”
Haimovitz has already completed his next recording project: Bach’s six suites for solo cello, using not only gut strings on his Goffriller but also a five-string cello piccolo in the sixth suite, the instrument for which that treacherously difficult piece was originally written. He was on the fence about whether to learn the cello piccolo for the recording. “But there was just no turning back at that point.”
For the Mohawk Trails recitals, he’ll be back on metal strings, playing with a modern piano, since much of the repertoire is from the 20th century. (His accompanist, Estela Olevsky, is an old friend from his days teaching at the University of Massachusetts.) But his newfound passion will leave a trace even there. For Beethoven’s variations on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” he’ll use a Baroque-style bow made by Cambridge bowmaker David Hawthorne. The combination of old and new turns out to suit the music perfectly. “I like the lightness of it in my hand,” he said. “It’s like a sports car in my hand, rather than a pickup truck.”
The Bach set, which will come out later this year, will make a fascinating comparison with his 2000 recording, about which Haimovitz now says that he can “no longer recognize what I did 15 years ago.” That set was a crucial moment in the cellist’s artistic rebirth. It came when he had gotten off the treadmill of the celebrity virtuoso, playing familiar concertos to large audiences in glitzy halls, and began playing Bach, contemporary works, and his arrangement of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” in bars and coffeehouses. If “indie classical” had a moment of inception, that was probably it.
For those who fell in love with Haimovitz’s progressive, contemporary sense of what a musician should be today — really, how could you not? — it may be jarring to see him embrace the distant past so fervently. But his goal remains the same: connecting with the music and his audience in the most direct, honest way possible. He’s gone through this latest journey because “it’s just more natural with the original tools. And that’s where you can just learn a lot from them.”