by Tim Janof

Emerson String Quartet cellist David Finckel's multi-faceted career makes him one of the world's most active musicians. His recent solo engagements have taken him to Germany, England, Canada, Mexico, and Japan, and in the United States to distinguished series in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Albuquerque and St. Paul. In the summer of 2000, David Finckel and Wu Han performed the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and at Chamber Music Northwest. They also made their debuts at festivals in Finland and Mexico, and returned to Japan for a special recital honoring the 10th anniversary of the Japan-Aspen Music Festival. Last May, the duo presented their third recital at London's Wigmore Hall. This season David Finckel records John Harbison's Cello Concerto, and performs new works composed for him by distinguished American composers Augusta Read Thomas and Bruce Adolphe.

Finckel is a co-founder of ArtistLed, the first musician-directed and Internet-based classical recording company. All five ArtistLed releases have received critical acclaim, and a sixth disc featuring the three great sonatas of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev was released in February 2001. Finckel recently concluded three years as Artistic Co-Director of SummerFest La Jolla, one of the country's most distinguished summer music festivals, where he brought international recognition for high performance standards, and innovative programming of concerts, symposiums and multi-disciplinary events. He is a regular member of the distinguished teaching faculty of the Isaac Stern Chamber Music workshops in New York and Jerusalem, and gives master classes at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer.

TJ: You come from a family that is rich with cellists.

DF: Yes, cellists and other musicians. My grandfather on my father's side was a cellist, and there are rumors of cellists in the family before him. His wife, Nell Callahan, from Kerry County, Ireland, was a violinist. All of their children studied instruments too. Several were pianists and one son, my Uncle George, was a cellist. George went to Eastman and fathered two boys, who are now professional cellists -- Michael and Christopher Finckel. Chris is the cellist in the Manhattan String Quartet.

When I was 10 years old my father, who was also my piano teacher, asked me to choose a second instrument. When I later asked my parents for a suggestion, they said, "Why don't you play the cello, like so many others in your family?" I agreed to try it and I soon fell in love.

Of course my connection with music runs very deeply. I was exposed to music from the very beginning because my father was a composer, arranger, music teacher, and pianist. There was always music in the house, so it seemed like the family trade. Choosing it for a career was pretty much inevitable.

TJ: Your first cello teacher was Mary Gilis.

DF: She had studied with Willem Wilecke and Leonard Rose's teacher, Felix Salmond. She had a reputation in her area -- Maplewood, New Jersey -- as being the kind of teacher that only the most serious students could survive, since she was very demanding, especially technically. If you were her student, it was automatically assumed that you were quite resilient. Despite her reputation, she was very sweet and had endless patience, though she was extremely exacting. In addition to the Popper Etudes, she introduced me to one of my greatest loves in the cello pedagogy literature, the cello technique book of Aldo Pais, published by Ricordi, which is particularly helpful for developing left hand technique. The book was perfect because there was a streak in me that wanted to save time and be as efficient as possible. Pais doesn't waste time on fancy tunes and recapitulations, it's all about technique. Pais taught me so much about how to use my left hand that, from the age of 12 or 13, I was able to play pieces like the Schumann Concerto or Rococo Variations.

TJ: Were you a perfectionist by nature, or did she instill this in you?

DF: I'd have to credit my father with this. He was always very strict and demanding when it came to music. He had grown up in a house where everybody received music lessons except him because his parents decided to not push him into music. Despite this he drove himself to learn because he loved music so much, which included teaching himself how to play the piano. Because of his lack of formal training, he couldn't read music until his late 20's, when he was already playing professionally as a jazz musician. He eventually became widely respected and was much in demand in the Washington, D.C., area, but his lack of formal training haunted him later when he began writing classical music and teaching instruments to children. He had to pick things up as he went along.

When I began studying music he put my nose to the books. He was going to make sure that I learned how to count and that I understood notation and so on. We also listened to lots of recordings, especially the music of Bach, for whom he had the greatest respect. He got me excited about striving for perfection, attaining very high levels of performance, and other lofty musical ideals.

With this kind of upbringing, Mary Gilis was the perfect teacher for me. Though I was afraid of her, her high standards resonated with me, and I was proud to be studying with someone with her reputation.

TJ: Then you went to Elsa Hilger, cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.

DF: We found her purely by coincidence. When I was 11 years old my parents started a chamber music camp on Lake Dunmore in Vermont, called Point Counterpoint, which is still operating to this day. They bought a small piece of land that had some broken-down buildings, and the three of us, as a family, sort of made the camp happen. After we had been there a year, someone asked us if we knew the cellist who also lived on the lake, which we didn't. It turned out to be Elsa Hilger, who was the first woman ever in an American orchestra, aside from harpists, who had been brought into the orchestra by Stokowski. Before joining the orchestra, she had traveled the world with her two sisters as the Hilger Trio. All three were child prodigies from Vienna, each having played since they were five or six years old, and they played all of their programs from memory. Now in her 90's, she still plays her cello in Vermont, north of Burlington. She's one of the most indefatigable people I have ever met.

Having grown up listening to recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was a huge thrill to meet somebody who actually played in it. Elsa Hilger would spend her summers on Lake Dunmore and make the trip to Saratoga, where the orchestra played their summer concerts. Sometimes she would take me and the other summer camp kids with her to a rehearsal or concert. There she was, up on stage, playing under the great Eugene Ormandy. I still remember them playing the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet overture and being overwhelmed by it. What a thrill!

Stokowski had moved her up to the first stand to sit as assistant principal cello, which she did for many years. Occasionally she would play concerti with the orchestra and she proved to be a fearless soloist. She had no idea what it was to be nervous. She talked to me endlessly about how much she loved to go out on stage and play, which was wonderful for me because I was kind of shy. I am an only child and my parents were not the most outgoing people, so I tended to be rather cautious. Elsa Hilger helped me to get passed that, and brainwashed me into feeling the same as she did about performing.

She was a very, very gifted player. Her hands were small, but they were incredibly delicate and flexible, which resulted in a technique that was reminiscent of Raya Garbousova's. She sort of jumped and stretched to get around the cello. She had a beautiful sound that had a distinct personality, which one rarely hears today.

She was a very demanding teacher. I remember her really nailing me on upper position intonation, since she had absolutely perfect pitch. When I played the high double stops in the Dvorak Concerto, she called out all the pitches on the inner strings, telling me which ones were sharp or flat.

TJ: Did you meet Rostropovich through Elsa Hilger?

DF: She didn't introduce me to him, but she did arrange our first musical encounter.

I first learned about Rostropovich through my Uncle George, who called up my father one day and said, "You've got to get one of Rostropovich's records and play it for David." My parents bought his recording of the Saint-Saëns Concerto for me, and when I listened to it, his playing connected with me like no one else's had.

A couple of years later we saw that Rostropovich was going to play the Dvorak Concerto at Carnegie Hall, so we bought tickets right away. That night the hall was absolutely packed. From our seats in the top of the balcony I was struck by his monstrous left hand; it looked like a spider crawling all over the fingerboard. Of course, even in our seats, we could hear everything he did all the time. He was absolutely magnetic and musically held the audience in the palm of his hand. When he finished the place went absolutely berserk, since nobody had ever heard playing like that. He really transformed the idea of what a cello could do.

After the concert I was completely star struck. My mother suggested that we go backstage and meet him. Being quite shy I wasn't too keen on the idea. She said, "In the 1940's, when your father and I used to go to concerts of Horowitz, Heifetz, and others, we would stand outside the stage door and just watch them come out." This seemed less scary so I agreed to do it. We went to a rather long corridor outside the stage door, and we stood at the bottom of the stairs. We could see that there was a long line of people headed upstairs to see him, so we figured that it would be a long time before he came out. Only a few minutes later, a door opened nearby and Rostropovich came charging out, obviously trying to make an escape from the line of people. He was wearing a big coat and a fur hat and he was carrying his cello and a 12" high pile of music. My mother and I flattened ourselves against the wall, amazed that it was really him, and us, in this little space. When he saw us standing there, obviously waiting to see him, he couldn't help himself and he put his cello down on the floor, put the stack of music on top of his cello, and then came over to us, holding out his hand, saying, "Thank you for coming to my concert."

I couldn't believe it. It would have been enough if he had merely acknowledged our presence with a nod or something, but he actually put his cello down and risked getting caught by the crowd in order to talk to us. Now, not only did I admire his playing, but I admired him as a person too.

After the concert I realized that I wanted to move people and make music sound the way he did, so I went home, took the endpin out of my cello, put its tip between two sections of the radiator, bent it, and stuck it back in my cello. I didn't know the purpose of the bent endpin, but I figured he must have done it for a good reason. At least this was something quantifiable I could do right away. My endpin has been bent ever since.

After such a great experience I felt encouraged to go backstage and say hello to him again. I'd watch for concerts that were within travel distance and I'd take a bus or train to reach them. If they were in Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston, or Washington, I'd be there, even if the concerts were in different cities on consecutive nights. After each concert, I'd go backstage to see him, and he couldn't help but be impressed that some kid was dutifully showing up at his concerts in city after city. That's how our relationship developed.

When I was 15 or 16 years old, Rostropovich came to Philadelpia to play the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto in a series of four concerts. I stayed at Elsa Hilger's house that week and went to the rehearsals with her. He and I ended up doing all sorts of things together, and I made myself available to him for various errands. I took him to Chinatown, where he taught me how to drink vodka, and I took him to a violin shop to get his bow re-haired, which was needed often; after one concert I saw that literally half the hair was missing from his bow. I later fetched his bow from the shop and took it back to his hotel. I also took him to the bank to cash the check he received to record the Brahms Double with Oistrakh and the Cleveland Orchestra, a measly $600.

One night Elsa Hilger made dinner for Rostropovich, pianist Alexander Dedyuhkin, and I. After dinner we went to the living room, where she had a little upright piano. I played a Bach Arioso to warm up and then I played the entire Schumann Concerto for Rostropovich, with Dedyuhkin at the piano. That was the first time I played for him, and it was quite an evening for me. Thereafter, any time I asked to play for him he would always find a way to listen to me. It would be backstage, in hotel rooms, and in odd places here and there.

TJ: What did he say about your playing?

DF: I was pretty meticulous technically, so he rarely talked to me about technique. Once in awhile he'd point out a tiny detail just to show that he was listening, but he mostly talked about the music and ensemble issues. He expected everything to be memorized and insisted that I know the scores and piano parts. I worked so hard for those lessons that my preparation time was when I really learned how to play the cello, and not so much in the lessons. He set such a high standard, both in concert and in lessons that I felt I had to make good on my incredible opportunity to play for him.

TJ: Rostropovich once told you that, when you discover a technical hurdle, it's an exciting opportunity to discover what's holding you back. What did he mean?

DF: Slava used to invent the simplest yet trickiest technical exercises on the spot for any passage. He would pinpoint, for example, the two or three notes that were the source of the problem, out of many, and work outwards from there. Another trick I saw him use at a class at Tanglewood was to set his watch and ask the student to practice a passage for five minutes, in front of the whole crowd. It became apparent after only a few moments that she didn't know how to use the time properly, and his opinion at the end of the time (which seemed like forever) was that she had wasted probably four minutes of it, since she didn't have an organized approach. He taught me how to practice much more efficiently.

TJ: Several years ago, the Emerson String Quartet recorded the Schubert C Major Quintet with Rostropovich in the Dreuifaltigkeit Church, in Ludwigshafen, Germany. That must have been a profound experience.

DF: Absolutely. To play side-by-side with my former teacher and one of the greatest cellists in history was a dream come true. Before leaving my house in New York to catch the plane to Europe for the recording session, I mentioned to my wife, Wu Han, that I should bring the second cello part for him. She said, "He's going to have a part. He's a professional musician." I chose to bring it anyway because he was always very demanding of me, and I was certain that he would expect me to have brought it. When we arrived it turned out I was exactly right. Not only did he expect me to have his part, but after the first run-through, he yelled at me because I hadn't marked his bowings. I had thought about it beforehand, but I didn't have the courage to go that far. The rest of the group had a big laugh at my expense. After all, who was I to put in bowings for Rostropovich?

When he arrived at the first rehearsal, I remember him taking the 'Duport' Strad out of its case. The strings were a half-step out of tune in every direction, as if the cello had been in an accident or something. I was surprised by this because my cello is never so out of tune when I take it out of its case. Then he put the music in front of him and there was all this confusion about the pacing and bowings, and then he would get lost a few times or come in wrong. The rest of us were glancing at each other like, "What planet is he from?" Needless to say, by the end of the first rehearsal, he had not only zoomed up to where we were with the piece, but he had gone way beyond us. This is the thing about people who are true geniuses; they can come from behind, and, because their learning curve is so steep, they'll just zoom right passed you.

By the end of the first rehearsal he was basically running the whole thing through his force of personality and experience, to which we were happy to defer. One time he suspended our recording of the slow movement because it was after lunch and we had had a big meal. After listening to the first take he could hear that we sounded tired, so he said, "Let's stop and go back to the hotel and take a nap. Then we'll come back tonight and record it again." Nobody questioned him; we did exactly what he said and came back later that night. I remember it was a beautiful snowy night in the little town and all was peaceful. We went back to the church and played the slow movement, and this time there was magic in the air. He was right. He sensed that we needed rest and we were happy to let him have that kind of influence on us.

TJ: How did he run the rehearsal? Did he use imagery to help get his point across like he does in master classes?

DF: He didn't really talk that much. He simply has an energy that inspires those around him. You can't help but be energized when you're around him, not only because of who he is and what he expects, but because there's just this feeling that comes out of somebody like that, it's magical. You don't really have to figure it out, it just happens.

TJ: After Elsa Hilger you attended the Manhattan School of Music.

DF: Yes, but only for a short time. I had a few lessons with Bernard Greenhouse, but I had already begun to play professionally in a group called the "Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia," so I didn't stay in school for long. The lure of the real life concert stage proved stronger than the lure of staying in school, even though I'm sure I could have learned a lot from Greenhouse.

TJ: Let's talk about issues related to playing in a string quartet. How does a group like the Emerson String Quartet achieve a common conception of a piece so that the group sounds a unified entity, instead of like four individuals?

DF: We were fortunate to have come through the same schools of thought in our musical upbringing. All of the members except me went to Juilliard, but I traveled in the same circles. Our two violinists studied with Oscar Shumsky, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, and in many ways one of the last great violinists of the Romantic tradition going back to Kreisler. Shumsky conducted an orchestra in New Jersey, the Colonial Symphony, where my first teacher, Mary Gilis, was principal cello and I was a section cellist. When she retired after several years I became the principal cellist. Shumsky would bring out students from Juilliard to play in the orchestra, which is how I met the guys from the quartet, who had been shipped in from New York. We were all greatly influenced by Oscar Shumsky.

It's much easier to have a common musical upbringing than to try to meld people of very different backgrounds and training. It would be very difficult to form a successful quartet if you've got one violinist who worships Heifetz, for example, and another who can't stand Heifetz and will only listen to Grumiaux. Because of this, our quartet was greatly helped by the fact that we were worshipping at the same musical temples. We all liked the same kind of playing, and we all value the great Romantic string playing traditions of violinists like Heifetz and Kreisler.

We were all fortunate to have the same musical influences in quartets as well, like the Budapest, Juilliard, and later the Guarneri Quartet. When the Guarneri Quartet came along, they blew away the myth that musicians had to slave away for decades before they would dare perform a string quartet. The Guarneri members were such brilliant instrumentalists and so well-educated musically that they were able to make those incredible records while still in their infancy as a quartet. They opened up a world of possibilities for young groups to form because, all of a sudden, it seemed possible to play at a high level much earlier in one's career. They also made it seem glamorous and exciting to be in a chamber ensemble. We were all greatly inspired by their success.

We were greatly influenced by other common figures as well. The other three in the quartet were in classes with the Juilliard Quartet's first violinist, Robert Mann, in their early studies, and of course I revered the quartet as well. We also attended Marlboro and worked with tremendous personalities like Felix Galimir and Alexander Schneider. Our common influences helped our group to gel early on.

Another reason we have been able to achieve a sense of musical unity has to do with how fortunate we have been as a quartet. We have been able to look in the mirror in a way that few quartets ever experience. With so many concerts, reviews, coachings, and recordings we've been able to take the guesswork out of what works and what doesn't. It's otherwise very difficult to gauge what's coming across the footlights. A lot of bickering that one hears about usually results from insecurity about how something actually sounds. In the beginning we may have argued for months about a certain tempo, for example, but once we started recording and playing back the tape we found that we all agreed exactly on what should be done. Recording is a great unifying exercise for any aspiring group.

Listening to ourselves on tape has also made it easier for us to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we're in performance, and to acknowledge that things have to change between concert halls, depending on their size and acoustics. We've found that we can't play successfully the same way for every hall and every recording, so we change how we play all the time.

We're so lucky to have many concerts to play so we don't have to set anything in stone musically. We can try something one night, and then try something else the next night. We're very lucky to have this opportunity.

I am sometimes asked if I think the Emerson is the greatest quartet in the world. The best answer I can give, and I mean it, is that I have no idea. But I am sure that we are the most fortunate quartet in the world. We are fortunate to have been together 25 years this season. We've had more success with recordings and our concert career than anybody deserves, and we've had a great time doing it. I just can't imagine a more fortunate situation, and I can't imagine a luckier cellist than myself in so many ways.

TJ: I've heard that some quartets try to synchronize their vibrato. Does the Emerson strive for this?

DF: I don't know that we try to synchronize our vibrato, where we try to match the up and down of our hand motions. That sounds too scientific. We try to create a common feeling instead. There are moments in music that call for this especially, but those moments are rare, since each of us is usually playing something very different from the others, at least in many of the great quartets, where each part has something equally important to do. One example of where we strive mightily to create a common feeling is in the slow movement of Beethoven Opus 132, at the famous "Heiliger Dankgesang," where we try to create a feeling of an inner crescendo, but we try to achieve this by synchronizing emotionally, not technically. Of course, we may have some technical adjustments to make to accomplish this, but we've never done breathing exercises before we play or any of the other "holistic" techniques one hears about these days.

TJ: Does the Emerson do slow intonation work? How do you decide who's right?

DF: The cello is always right unless some note I'm playing strikes the others as really out of tune, which doesn't happen often, fortunately. We practice slowly for intonation every single rehearsal, and we make it a point to do short warm-ups on stage before a concert after a long day of travel. We like to say that it "cleans out the ears."

TJ: What's the secret to playing so precisely together? In the beginning, did the group sit such that the chairs faced outwards instead of inwards, so that you all were forced to listen to each other more carefully?

DF: The most important things a group needs in order to play together are a common sense of tempo and rhythm and the ability to listen carefully. Watching doesn't help much, so your suggestion of facing away is right on target and we often have student groups try this. Much to their amazement, they always play together much better.

Articulation is important in ensemble playing as well. If you can't hear articulation, you're always guessing where the beginning of someone's note really is, and hence the rhythm and tempo is unclear. As Alexander Schneider once screamed at his Christmas String Seminar Orchestra "Articulate! Or we can all go home!"

TJ: Do you use expressive intonation in your quartet, i.e. raising major thirds, etc?

DF: No, not much at all. Maybe a note bends this or that way in a melody.

TJ: Let's say something happens three times in a row, like a sequence or a repeated motive that goes from instrument to instrument. Do you negotiate who gets to do a portamento?

DF: All that happens with us is that a little alarm bell will go off when we sense there are too many slides in a row. As far as planning it out, it's more each to his own way of sounding good.

TJ: I've noticed a lot of amateur players counting Adagios in 8 instead of 4, for example, presumably because it's easier to count. Do you guys try to play the music with the written time signature in mind?

DF: Yes, if possible. Sometimes it's hard, but we do believe that feeling a larger pulse, often larger than what the composer indicates, is the way to go. Many pieces, for example, can be felt in whole measures as beats. That way a four-bar phrase becomes a 4/4 measure, with strong and weak beats. It usually makes a lot of musical sense to think in terms of longer lines.

TJ: Do you guys worry about matching bowings? It seems that the Guarneri was less concerned about this.

DF: We are mostly concerned with matching bow speed and articulation.

TJ: What would you advise a young cellist who wants to be a quartet cellist?

DF: Learn the repertoire and study it with someone who really plays in a quartet. There is no substitute for the most experience possible, because it's like learning four parts instead of just one. Play along with your favorite recordings and get the sound of the other parts in your ear. Also learn whom to look at for cues when you take an audition.

TJ: Does the cello have a certain role in a quartet?

DF: The cello has many roles. The cello often has the bass line, so it has to support the others at the appropriate sound level. The cello is the foundation for pitch, so intonation must be accurate and not wander. Rhythm and tempo are established by the cello, so clear articulation and accurate tempo awareness are key. The cello also is responsible for overall volume control. If you play louder, everyone else does too. If you drop the bottom out, they all play softer. That's the quick answer.

TJ: You mentioned bass lines. Do you see the role of the bass line as primarily to provide a harmonic foundation and therefore you try to keep it more in the background, or do you try to bring out its melodic elements. I guess I'm thinking about how to play continuo parts in particular, but this could apply to any bass line. I ask this because the bass line often seems a little bland in recordings.

DF: This is a difficult question. If you were to listen to recordings of ten different quartets playing the same piece, you would probably hear more variation in the sound of the lower instruments than in the upper instruments, and there's a reason for this. Lower frequencies disperse more widely and are less directional than higher frequencies. The sound from the violins goes pretty much straight into the microphones, whereas the cello's sound emanates from all sides of the instrument. Because of this, there is a lot of variation from recording to recording on how cellos are miked and therefore how cellos sound. As a result, the cello part often won't sound like it has a focused sound or any detail in the performance. This drives me crazy because, having the cello right under my ear all the time and investing a lot of care and detail into the bass line, I would like to hear it come through on recordings and on the concert stage.

I feel I need as focused and concentrated a sound as I can possibly get, so I use a cello that's very bright, strong, and clear, I use a Belgian bridge, and I use all steel strings. From all accounts there's still plenty of bass to be heard, but I don't have a boomy wash of sound. The bass is like an anchor and I know that the rest of the ensemble feels good when they can hear the pitch and the timbre of the bass notes easily, so that's what I strive for. I prefer to hear the cello as a concentrated voice.

TJ: I remember listening to Timothy Eddy in a live performance of a Haydn quartet, where the cello part had one quarter note on the first beat of each measure. He initiated the notes with a very short bow stroke and then let the cello ring fully the rest of the beat. Other cellists play the full value of the quarter notes on the string before letting go. Do you have any idea where you might fall between these two methods of execution?

DF: When you're talking about how long to play a note, the acoustics of the hall must be taken into consideration. If I were to play the same thing in the Tonhalle in Zurich, I'd play those notes as short as possible and they'd ring the entire measure because the hall is so resonant. If I were to play in the high school auditorium in Teaneck, New Jersey, where the sound is absolutely dead, I'd probably play that kind of passage with an initial attack and then let the bow float across the string, perhaps for the entire measure, and use open strings, in order to artificially create a more friendly acoustic. I have to change how I play from hall to hall so that I take advantage or overcome its acoustics. Naturally I would prefer something in between the two extremes because they both present problems, but I make adjustments all the time in order to either decrease or increase the sense of ambience.

TJ: Speaking of acoustics, I remember listening to you perform in the Schubert B-flat Piano Trio in Meany Hall in Seattle. While I thought the balance was perfect from my seat on the main level, my friend in the balcony complained that he could barely hear the cello. Is there much you can do about this?

DF: I wish there were. I witnessed the same problem two days ago when I attended the memorial concert for Isaac Stern in Carnegie Hall. I was sitting in box seats on the far stage left. The last piece on the program was the first movement of the Brahms B-Flat Sextet. The violinists were Itzhak Perlman and Midori, the first cellist was Yo-Yo Ma, the first violist was Pinchas Zuckerman, and the rest were students from the Curtis Institute. Unfortunately, I could barely hear Perlman since his back was to me, even though I knew he had a huge sound that was going out in the hall. This sort of thing can happen, depending on the acoustics, where you don't hear one instrument or another. If we are going to play in a hall that we are unfamiliar with, we will take turns going out into the seats before a concert so that we can get a feel for the balance. Unfortunately, you can't adjust so that the balance is perfect in every part of the hall.

TJ: I noticed that the Emerson Quartet uses are fair amount of vibrato in the Beethoven quartets. Have you guys ever considered playing in a style that is more in line with the performance practice of Beethoven's time?

DF: This is a complicated issue. It's possible that certain music can become muddy if too much vibrato is used. Curiously enough, in music that is thickly written, like in the Brahms Quartets, where it is often tempting to unleash a thick vibrato, we use more of an Early instrument sound in order to maintain clarity. But in music that's written with great clarity to begin with, we all sort of gravitate towards making the most beautiful sound we can. It's possible to play expressively without very much vibrato, of course. But if our quartet tried to approximate what we've heard in some Early ensemble playing, we wouldn't be doing what's natural for us and we'd only be imitating others, rather than doing what we feel deep inside. It's very hard for us to think merely instrumentally.

TJ: You started your own recording label, ArtistLed. Were you tired of dealing with the recording industry?

DF: Not at all. The quartet has enjoyed a fantastic relationship with Deutsche Grammaphon since 1987. We were very, very lucky to sign on at a time when CD's were relatively new and they needed a new catalog recorded digitally. We've basically been able to record anything we want.

After assessing my options to record as a soloist or a duo with the big labels, I decided I would never have the kind of flexibility and freedom over the repertoire, recording process, and marketing that I enjoy with the Emerson. Rather than compromise and take a second or third best situation, Wu Han and I decided to create a situation where we have as much artistic control as I do in the quartet, which is why we started ArtistLed. We get to record what, when, and how we want to.

This has been the greatest luxury. If I feel like recording the Debussy Sonata, for example, nobody gets out the Schwann catalog to tell me I can't do it because somebody else just did it. Nobody tells me which microphones I have to use because somebody in the company just bought them. We pick all of our own takes, and put the recordings together ourselves with the help of our engineer. Then we listen to it for months to let it sink in. If something doesn't sound right we'll change it. We're not held to release dates, so if it's not ready, we don't release it. We have total artistic control over the product, which is why I think they're successful.


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