Missionary for New Music

The cellist Alban Gerhardt

Alban Gerhardt
(Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

When Alban Gerhardt takes to the podium, there only seems to be him and his cello. The sincerity and passion with which he devotes himself to the music has a focus and an appeal that compels the audience to listen. This is edge-of-the-chair cello playing, burning with the subjective will of the performer. In addition, he has an almost missionary zeal for new music, not only for the cello concertos by Witold Lutosławski and Henri Dutilleux which have now become classics, but also for contemporary works by Jörg Widmann and Unsuk Chin, who wrote her cello concerto especially for Alban Gerhardt – after trying for years to persuade them. The situation was quite similar with Brett Dean: “He was a colleague of my father with the Berliner Philharmoniker and also my sister’s viola teacher. But we only really got to know each other ten years ago when I stayed with him during a stopover in Melbourne. Even then I asked him for a cello concerto because I really appreciate him and his music. At first nothing came of it, but I persisted. Over the years he heard me playing the Dutilleux, Pintscher and Chin concertos – and realised that it wasn’t not impossible to write a cello concerto.”

“Fragmentary, lyric, explosive”

But why are so many contemporary composers so reluctant when it comes to the genre of the cello concerto? For Alban Gerhardt, the main reason is “that composers of the last 50 years have had a huge orchestra at their disposal – and they wanted to use it, too. But that doesn’t work for the cello because it does not have the range of high notes of a violin or the power of a piano. As a result, it lacks the ability to assert itself over the orchestra. Besides, it’s a rather melodic instrument, you can’t produce virtuoso fireworks on it as with the violin or the piano”. Before coming to Berlin in October, Brett Dean’s concerto received its premiere in Sydney at the end of August. Due to a bereavement in the composer’s family, work on the piece was delayed a little, and the score was still not complete in late May. But Alban Gerhardt was already able to get a first glimpse of the work in progress – and immediately went into raptures: “It’s like a wonderfully intertwined story: full of colour, sometimes fragmentary, then again very lyrical – and there are also some explosive, virtuoso things. I’m a bit afraid of a few places that are very fast and have many changes of metre. It’s very difficult and a challenge for the memory.”

Growing up with the Berliner Philharmoniker

For Alban Gerhardt, it is an enormous stroke of luck that he is able to play the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker. “It’s my favourite orchestra in the world, because I grew up with them,” he enthuses with an admiration which is, in a manner of speaking, written into the family DNA because his father was a violinist with the Philharmoniker for many years. “I went to almost every concert when I was three or four years old. Either with my mother or alone: at that time, my father would drop me off in the choir seats on the podium – and pick me up again after the concert. Once, when I didn’t do my homework, I was punished by not being allowed to go to a Bruckner symphony – for other children the concert would probably have been a punishment.” In 1991, he made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Semyon Bychkov – an event which brought him his international breakthrough. And to this day, he particularly appreciates “his” orchestra: “What happens on the stage in terms of musical energy, will and creative power is already unique. When we play together, I try to give my absolute best. Of course, I do that in every concert, but with the Philharmoniker, it’s just a Champions League class higher.”

This text is an abridged version of the contribution by Bjørn Woll for the magazine 128 (Volume 0432018, in German only), editions of which are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie.