If I want to know if a cellist is meeting the requirements for good quartet playing, I don’t think about how I would play the part. I imagine how David Soyer would have played it.
As a very young cellist I first became aware of the magic of great string quartet playing by listening to the Guarneri Quartet’s recordings of the Beethoven Quartets. Like everyone, I was seduced by the perfect ensemble, the luscious tone, and the utterly convincing musicianship. But it wasn’t until I started playing quartets many years later that I learned how many of those qualities, in the Guarneri Quartet, came from the bottom up.
David Soyer was not only a great cellist, musician and teacher; he was also a keen analyst of everything that went into playing the instrument, both in and out of an ensemble. It was David who taught my quartet the basic principle of playing together, rather than following a leader. This was in 1980, my first season in the quartet, when we exchanged the most expensive bottle of scotch we could afford for a couple of hours of coaching from David on Beethoven’s Opus 127. We were attempting to get the first chords perfectly together, and asked him for help on how to follow each other. His answer was both simple and revelatory: if you only follow, you will inevitably be behind – you must lead together with the same motions, strike the string in the same way, at the same time, and then you will be truly together. It is something that we have never forgotten, a concept that we have passed along in all our teaching.
As we said goodbye and thank you that day, we watched David head down the hallway towards the elevator. Just before he got in, he turned back to us, and in a commanding voice said: “David! Play louder! All the time!” This is also something I have never forgotten, possibly to the dismay of my colleagues.
David’s handling of the cello in the quartet was something of an inexplicable phenomenon. Although he never appeared to be straining, he made an absolutely enormous sound on any cello that was put in his hands. That sound, so particular to him, had extraordinary depth and richness that made it never offensive or grating on the ear, but rather supporting the ensemble with a miles-deep foundation that you felt would never give way. The other signature contribution that David made to any ensemble was his incredibly natural articulation, which stabilized the group from the below, allowing his colleagues the freedom to sing seamless lines without fear of losing their moorings.
The other great quartet cellist in my life may well have influenced David as well: Mischa Schneider of the Budapest Quartet. Mischa was a larger-than-life person and musician, and his sound, even on the scratchiest old recordings, comes through as the defining voice of the Budapest. Both David and Mischa shared something in common: their speaking voices boomed with the same resonance as their cellos. I always wonder: if I could sing another octave lower, might I sound as good as they?
As a bonus to all that I learned about playing the cello from David came his friendship. There was never an encounter with him where he was anything but enthusiastic, warm, fun-loving, eager to share experiences, and above all, supportive. I know that I share with many cellists the now-treasured memories of his distinctive voice, his unforgettable personality, and his loyal friendship.