Portamento and shifting in the Elgar Cello Concerto

By Miranda Wilson

In modern performance practice, there are certain styles of music in which it’s considered unfashionable, or in poor taste, to have a lot of audible portamento when shifting from note to note. In most modern interpretations of Bach and Haydn’s cello music, for example, portamento would be a big no-no. In late Romantic compositions, however, we have a little more license to slide. We know this because we can hear in the earliest audio recordings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some nineteenth-century players made surprisingly frequent portamenti.

I say surprising because it comes as a slight shock to hear just how often some of the top cellists of the early twentieth century, such as Julius Klengel and Hugo Becker, made audible slides. While I think we can take their recordings as primary documents in the quest for historically informed performance practice, mainstream modern taste doesn’t allow for quite such frequent sliding. What I propose instead is the sparing use of portamento, using various types of shift.

There are various types of fingerings for shifts. The simplest kind uses the same finger for both notes. But sometimes, we have to begin and end on a different finger. And there’s more than one way to do this kind of shift. In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I used the terms “modern” and “old-fashioned” to distinguish between two common ways. In other words, a “modern” shift means that you shift on the “new” finger, and an “old-fashioned” shift means that you shift on the “old” finger, only putting down the “new” finger when you arrive. 

Why “old-fashioned”? If you listen to recordings from the early to mid-twentieth century, you’ll hear lots of this type of shift. Pablo Casals loved them. Jacqueline du Pré really loved them. I don't mean "old-fashioned" in a negative sense; it's just that in more recent decades, this kind of shift, which has the characteristic of giving the impression of an "extra" note in the middle, has come to be used for special occasions rather than constantly. While all audible shifting should be used sparingly, this is particularly the case for old-fashioned shifts.

A classic opportunity for choosing an old-fashioned shift appears at the beginning of the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto Op. 85 at the end of the phrase, between B and E (fingering suggestion mine):

If you listen to du Pré’s legendary 1965 recording with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra, you’ll hear her trademark, expansive old-fashioned shift here. (Beatrice Harrison, in her 1928 recording of the concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra and Elgar himself at the podium, makes a much quicker, more discreet old-fashioned shift.) By contrast, more recent interpreters such as Steven Isserlis (with the London Symphony Orchestra and Richard Hickox, 1988) use a modern shift. I haven't found a recording of a cellist taking that B on the G-string to avoid a shift altogether (where would be the fun in that?).

As I mentioned, the old-fashioned shift is for special occasions only. But many other points in the first movement call for audible shifts of one kind or another. Many cellists find this passage from mm. 23-26 difficult because of the (necessary) frequency of shifting:

You don’t want more than one or two audible slides in this passage, because to do so would make it sound predictable and inexpressive. But using the fingerings and arm movements suggested below, we can keep this passage “clean” and reserve audible slides for the most expressive points. Here are my suggestions for fingerings and places to shift:

For shift #1, we can use the same finger for both notes, and “hide” the shift by executing it very quickly over a bow change. For shift #2, it can be expressive to make a graceful little modern shift between E and A after the bow change. Shift #3 shouldn’t be audible if shift #2 has been audible, but this is pretty easy to accomplish if you vibrate the A until the last second, then “hide” the shift by releasing the harmonic at the last split second to shift down the neck of the cello without the fingers touching the string on the way down. Shift #4, like shift #1, can be hidden over the bow change.

Many players learning the Elgar for the first time find it hard to execute the shifts accurately. In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I advocated a “pulling-back” movement to prepare for a shift, much as an archer has to pull an arrow back against the strings of her bow before shooting it. You need a pull-back preparation before you can shift quickly and accurately. This is far more effective than “just going” because it builds energy and release.

This is what shift #1 (from the anacrusis and downbeat of 23) looks like. Click on the arrows to scroll between pictures.


And this is what an old-fashioned shift in mm. 4-5 looks like. Click on the arrows to scroll between pictures.