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PROGRAM NOTES: SHEKU KANNEH-MASON & ISATA KANNEH-MASON

Gaspar Cassadó
Suite for Solo Cello

Gaspar Cassadó is hardly a household name, but he was one of the great cellists of the twentieth century, active as a performer, composer and transcriber for his instrument. Born in Barcelona in 1897, he was discovered at the age of nine by a young Catalan cellist just starting out on his career, the 21-year-old Pablo Casals, and Gaspar was accepted to study with him in Paris on a scholarship from his native city. During his long studies with Casals in Paris, he absorbed the many aesthetic crosswinds blowing through the French capital, coming to admire the spiky modernism of Stravinsky, the impressionism of Ravel, and the Spanish nationalist sentiments of Manuel Da Falla.

Among the strongest influences on him, however, came from Casals’ championing of the Bach suites for solo cello, which certainly influenced the composition of his own Suite for Solo Cello, composed in 1926. Cassadó himself never recorded the work, and it lay dormant for half a century until it was popularized by cellist Janos Starker in the 1980s. Cassadó’s student Marçal Cervera, who studied the piece with him, says that it represents in its three movements three important cultural regions of Spain: Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia and Andalusia.

Like the Bach suites, Cassadó’s suite is a collection of dances, introduced by a Preludio, which in the first movement of his suite turns into a zarabanda, related to the baroque sarabande. Cervera suggests that the two presentations of the opening theme, one forte, the other piano, represent in turn Don Quixote and his beloved, Dulcinea. But other associations run through the movement, as well, including quotations from Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe (the famous opening flute solo) and from Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello.

The second movement is a sardana, the folk dance most closely associated with the Catalonian nationalist revival of the 19th century. The sardana is a round dance accompanied by a cobla wind band comprising a high-whistling flaviol (wooden fipple flute), double-reed shawms and various brass instruments. The opening, played entirely in harmonics, imitates the high whistling sound of the flaviol summoning the dancers to the town square. The sardana is a dance in three parts, the middle section being more lyrical and in a minor key. The frequent changes in register on the cello imitate the way that various sections of the band interact.

The last movement is the one in which the spirit of the dance is most evident, with the snap of castanets imitated in sharp, abrupt rhythms, the strumming of the guitar in flamboyant arpeggio patterns, and the harmonies of Spanish folk music in the distinctive pattern of the four-note descending bass line.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven’s two cello sonatas of Op. 5 share many characteristics. Each begins with an introductory adagio leading into a sonata-form allegro and ends with a rondo finale. But if the first of the set, in F major, is distinctly ‘Mozartean’ in inspiration, the second in G minor, is more than a little ‘Handelian,’ and understandably so.

Both were written in 1796 at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, where a production of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was on offer at the Berlin Singakademie in the same year that Beethoven visited. King Friedrich Wilhelm was a charter member of the Handel fan club, having introduced George Frederick’s oratorios to the Prussian capital. And he was more than a passable cellist, to boot, having been taught while still a princeling-in-short-pants by the virtuoso court cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) for whom the Op. 5 sonatas were written. What more attractive model to take for a sonata to be performed with Duport in front of the King himself?

What Beethoven admired most in Handel was his ability to evoke an emotion, or construct an entire dramatic scene, out of the merest scrap of a motive, such as the three-note descending phrase that occurs so often in Judas Maccabaeus. Angus Watson finds that this motive structures much of the melodic material in Beethoven’s G minor sonata, as well. But more telling still is Beethoven’s pervasive use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the sonata’s opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, in clear imitation of the French overture (also in G minor) that begins Handel’s oratorio.

Despite its mere two movements, there is nothing small-scale about this sonata. Beethoven’s austere and pathos-filled Adagio, dominated by a descending scale pattern and marked by many dramatic pauses, is just one of the ways in which Beethoven adds structural heft to his sonata. The exposition of the immediately following sonata-form movement virtually overflows with melodic ideas: there are two in its first theme group and two in its second, while the development section erupts with an intensity of emotion and virtuosity of piano writing that hint at Beethoven’s mature ‘heroic’ style. Capping off the first movement is a coda in which Beethoven lets his instrumentalists mull over what they have just played for the last time before the movement ends, grimly and grudgingly, with a stiffly Baroque tierce de Picardie in G major.

After all that heavy drama, Beethoven serves up a good-natured rondo finale with a sturdy opening refrain tune of small range that manages to thump and twinkle in turn. With a repetitive structure playfully phrased in alternating fragments of forte and piano, it drums its way into your head to become the most memorable melody of the movement. The intervening episodes, and even the refrain theme itself are continually developed and varied—sometimes cast in the minor mode, sometimes with the instruments chasing each other in canon—as if in a sonata movement. This finale simply overflows with rhythmic vitality, due to a near-constant chatter of rapid passagework on the part of both piano and cello.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor Op. 40

Shostakovich is said to have been on his way to the premiere of his Cello Sonata in D minor when he read Stalin’s article in Pravda denouncing his internationally successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. What had ticked off the mass-murderer-turned-music-critic was his conviction that the composer had strayed into the aesthetic and ideological crime of “petty-bourgeois formalism.”

‘Petty-bourgeois formalism you say? Good thing he didn’t hear my cello sonata!’ Shostakovich must have thought to himself. The conservative musical language of this sonata, with its profusion of regular phrase lengths and adherence to a four-movement classical layout (sonata-movement, scherzo, largo and rondo) shocked even some of his contemporaries. And for a work composed in 1934, the repeat of the first movement’s exposition is still shocking, even today.

The first and second themes of the sonata-form first movement are both lyrical in inspiration. The second, in particular, seems almost sentimental, without even a touch of sarcasm. In the development section they are set against a repeated note figure that first appears as cello accompaniment to the second theme and then is more openly articulated at the end of the exposition. An unusual feature of this movement is how it slows to a glacial pace in recapitulating the first theme at its conclusion.

The dance-like quality of the second movement scherzo is rough, swaggering and full of ostinato rhythmic energy. The piano part revels in its chattering pattern of repeated notes in the high register (reminiscent of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance) while the cello is equally scintillating with its glistening arpeggios in harmonics.

Admirers of Shostakovich’s mature ‘bleak’ style will feel right at home in the sombre and doleful Adagio, in which the piano largely plays below the searingly lyrical cello line that dominates the movement.

The concluding Allegro is a clearly structured rondo in which the eccentric but playful opening theme occurs three times, separated by two contrasting episodes, the second of which sees the piano take off for the races. Shostakovich declines to build up to a big “petty-bourgeois formalist” ending. One moment you are enjoying a pleasantly regular toe-tapping tune, and the next … it’s over.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

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