Last weekend I played the first movement of the opus 18 Sextet by Brahms. It made me wonder about setup, good and bad instruments, and the way instruments might have shaped the music, instead of the other way round. Theses are just thoughts and nothing scientific, but I find them interesting and would be interested to hear if anyone has opinions on the matter.
The opening phrase of the Brahms was for me to play, as first cello. It is not a easy theme to phrase, because of the irregularity of the slurring. The first two bars are slurred, then you have two quarter notes slurred to get back to the frog, then four slurred against two. Especially the first three bars are hard for the bow. You have to try to save up bow on the downbow, making sound close to the bridge, to then release the pressure/weight and move further away from the bridge for the slurred two quarters in upbow, otherwise they will sound much too loud. And in doing this ideally you try to keep a similar sound, in spite of the different contact point. Added to that, preferably, the two quarters have a slight diminuendo too.
Now ofcourse, nothing is ever ideal in musical performance. All is always a compromise, the best performer is he who chooses the best compromises and manages to perform them most convincingly. I didn't do a good job, in my opinion.
I was playing on my modern cello, which is a bit over ten years old now. It used to sound not so good, until I had a setup done by my now favorite lutiers. This setup involved a belgian bridge and a new sound post. The cello ever since has sounded much better: better projection, more textured/richer sound, good response. It does have quite a wolf on the f, which doesn't make the prase I talked about easier, as the second of the two quavers is an f. Nonetheless, I had great difficulty performing the slurring as Brahms wrote them down and indeed during performance chose a diffent slurring on one occasion due to bad planning on my behalf. Changing contact point radically alters the sound on this cello, and there isn't much choice as to the speed of the bow at any given contact point; the contact point dictates to a large extend how fast or slow I can bow. Especially wher there is a wolf involved, ofcourse.
Now my cello is in for some varnish retouching, and I'm playing a cello owned by the music school I work at. A terrible cheap cello it is. It is not loud at all, especially the lower two strings lack power and core in sound. The a and d strings can be forced into producing a nice sound though. However, I just noticed however how much easier it is to play the theme on this cello. I need to change contact point to a much lesser degree, and each contact point allows for a wider range of bow speeds compared to my own cello. The sound does not change as much with the contact point.
Being a baroque specialist, I also own a baroque cello. In baroque music, there are a lot of short bow strokes, many of them very irregular. 1 against three all the time, at times 1 against 7 or more, (think of Bach preludes) All these things are easily done on a baroque cello with a lighter bow, and a less loud sound. The different setup allows for different usage of the cello. In a way, the baroque cello is more similar to the bad cello I now temporarily play, because it allows for a wider range of bow speeds at a given contact point. But it sound nicer than the bad cello, because it is a good cello, and because it has gut strings.
One of the drawbacks of baroque cellos is that they are relatively small sounding. Most of my baroque cello colleagues do not even perform on real baroque cellos, but use cellos in modern setup, but with a baroque bridge, gut strings and tail piece, and without end pin. Still basically a modern cello (neck angle and bass bar). I suppose cellists have always found the small sound a problem, and that this is why for cello (for violin, this may be different, it seems classical violins may often have been somewhat quieter but sweeter sounding than baroque violins) the evolution of the setup to a more angled neck and bridges with less wood progressively results in a louder sound.
However, this louder sound means that it is harder to use irregular bowing. Since most composers were players too, it seem logical that when they changed the setups of their instruments (think Boccherini and the likes) for more power, and the decreased tolerance for difference in bowing speeds, they started composing music that employs less irregular bowing patterns, and a more singing tone. So that the desire for a louder instrument may have influenced the shape of phrases and the kind of articulation and slurring used in music. This is opposite to what many seem to believe: that the music changed first, and instruments were adapted accordingly. Or rather, it shows that it is a bit of both: if instruments change because of a desired musical goal (louder cellos), then after that the music also needs to change (less irregular bowing).
Connected to that: I wonder if all cellos with modern setup work the way my modern cello works. I am thinking, that a truely great instrument would have good sound projection and loudness without sacrificing the range of different bow speeds (and arm weights) that are possible at a particular contact point. So that a truely great instrument should allow for a more baroque setup without loosing its tone projection and loudness, and allowing for the great variety of bowing that baroque music asks for. I have played cellos that were better at it than my modern cello. However, I have not played any cello I would consider great in the sense that it really is out there on its own. I'm interested what people who have think of this idea.