cello

Blasts from the Past: Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2

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On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:

The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.

Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more

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Proms 2016: Malcolm Hayes – Violin Concerto, Huw Watkins – Cello Concerto & Charlotte Bray – Falling in the Fire (World Premières)

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Three Proms, three world premières, three concertos, one for violin, two for cello, all lasting around 25 minutes. The similarities between them go little deeper than these most basic facts, though, each occupied with a very particular soundworld, aesthetic, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. The results were similarly mixed. Read more

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Per Nørgård – Three Nocturnal Movements (World Première)

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It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.

Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns. Read more

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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Pierre Boulez – Messagesquisse

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The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more

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Davíð Brynjar Franzson – on Matter and Materiality (World Première)

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Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.

If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more

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Patrick Nunn – Fata Morgana

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The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more

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