Variations Concertantes Op. 17
Felix was not the only musician in the Mendelssohn family. His older sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was a prodigiously talented pianist and composer, although she chose marriage over a public career, and his younger brother Paul Mendelssohn (1812-1874) was no slouch as a cellist, to judge by the Variations Concertantes that Felix wrote for him in 1829.
The adjective concertantes in the title underlines the notion that this work was written for two solo instruments, not one instrument accompanying another. In the late 18th century sonatas for cello and piano were grossly lopsided affairs. In an age without sound technicians to turn a knob and boost the bass frequencies
in a chamber ensemble, piano sonatas were often published with an optional cello part doubling the bass line. This gave a bit of “oomph” to the lower regions where the sound of the early fortepiano, forerunner of the modern concert grand, was lamentably thin.
It was Beethoven who elevated the cello to the status of equal interlocutor in duo chamber works with cello, beginning with his Op. 5 sonatas for cello and piano. And Beethoven is an important point of reference in the musical style of this work (especially his Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26), although the spirit of Mozart hovers over the variation theme with its feminine cadence patterns, as well.
The compositional task, in sets of variations such as these, is to keep the listener’s interest engaged by constantly varying the texture and mood. Mendelssohn accomplishes this in pairs of tag-team variations that see first the cello, then the piano taking a leading role.
It is Var. 7, in which the cozy, parlour haze of Biedermeier domesticity is stripped from the theme in a minore variation with flying octaves in the piano part and operatic recitative in the cello, that points clearly in the direction of the Romantic era to come. Then, after reprising the opening theme in all its simplicity in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final variation takes things further in an extended coda of Beethovenian proportions that nonetheless tapers the work to an elegant conclusion in a mood of tranquility and repose.
Suite Italienne (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky)
Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Pulcinella, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in May 1920, exemplifies the new neo-classical style which he adopted after the First World War. Setting aside the bold rhythmic experiments and gargantuan orchestral ensembles that had propelled his pre-war ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring (1913) to international success, he looked instead to create more transparent textures, with fewer instruments, in direct imitation of music of the past.
The ballet Pulcinella features stories about the traditional stock characters of Italian commedia dell’ arte and Stravinsky’s musical score is equally traditional, using melodies from the gracious scores of Neapolitan opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Music this easy on the ears was bound to spawn arrangements and in 1932 Stravinsky and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky set to work on a version for cello and piano, completed in 1933.
Stravinsky’s aim was not to produce a mere pastiche of the earlier composer’s style, but rather a modernist re-imagining of Pergolesi’s melodies in a post-World-War world. He preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadences and Baroque ornamentation of the originals, but signalled a new modernist context for the work by means of numerous irregularities such as strong accents on weak beats of the bar and exaggerated dissonance in the bass-line—a clever way of increasing sonic resonance without thickening the score.
The Introduzione is the overture to the ballet, written in the Baroque ritornello style; that is, structured as a regular alternation between sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and sections played by a small group of soloists (concertino). These structural divisions are still audible in the cello and piano version, as well.
The gentle lilt and dotted rhythm of the Serenata identifies it a sicilienne. It is based on the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes) from Pergolesi’s Il Flaminio (1735) but its overall mood of pastoral tranquillity also contained an odd hint of melancholy.
In the following Air, the cello plays the role of the socially awkward basso buffo Bastiano from Il Flaminio pleading his suit to the love of his life—unsuccessfully, to judge from the lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ‘nnamurato (1732) that follows.
The virtuoso showpiece of the suite is the Tarantella, set in the high register of the cello and featuring a whirlwind of melodies spun out at breakneck speed.
The Minuetto and finale builds up gradually in excitement from its opening tone of sustained elegy until it finally explodes into an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an 18th-century comic opera finale, from which emerges a series of nostalgic reminiscences of the most hummable phrases from the overture.
Sonatina for Cello and Piano
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are considered the fathers of Hungarian art music. Their work collecting wax-cylinder recordings of folksongs in the Hungarian countryside and in Hungarian-inhabited areas of Slovakia and Romania counts among the earliest contributions to the field of ethnomusicology. While the music of both composers displays clear signs of both their Classical training and their interest in folk culture, Kodály’s synthesis of these two influences was more easily received by the Hungarian public than that of Bartók.
At the heart of Kodály’s music is an interest in melody and his Sonatina for Cello and Piano of 1922 overflows with a passionate lyricism that situates it a direct line of descent from the cello works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvořák.
Structured in a type of sonata form without formal development, the work owes much of its pentatonic style of melody construction to Hungarian folk music, while its often shimmering piano textures, remarkable in their variety, are clearly influenced by the composer’s exposure to French impressionism and the music of Debussy in particular.
Sonata for Solo Cello
György Ligeti (pronounced LI-ge-ti) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known to popular audiences for the use of his searing scores Atmosphères (1961), Lux Aeterna (1966), Requiem (1965), and Aventures (1962) used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
His early career, before he emigrated from Hungary in 1956, was beset with the difficulties inherent in working under a communist regime suspicious of artistic innovation and other “bourgeois” tendencies. His Sonata for Solo Cello, which was banned by the Composers’ Union for its modernity, comes from this period.
The Sonata comprises two contrasting movements, the first composed in 1948 and the second five years later in 1953. The first movement Dialogo is written without fixed metre and depicts a conversation between a man and a woman—a conversation narrowly focused on a small range of topics, it would appear, given the amount of repetition of the opening phrases.
The second movement, entitled Capriccio, is a strictly metered moto perpetuo in 3/8 time that pays tribute to the virtuoso exuberance of Paganini’s famous Caprices for violin.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 99
The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year- old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.
The first movement Allegro vivace opens in sweeping fashion with a feverish quivering of piano tremolos over which the cello sets out its thematic agenda in a series of bold fanfares. This pattern of tremolos will form an important unifying motif throughout the movement as a stabilizing counterbalance to the melodic fragmentation that characterizes the principal theme.
The second movement Adagio affettuoso is in simple ternary form. Its principal theme, sung out with full-throated fervour by the cello after a brief introduction, is remarkably chromatic but vocally lyrical nonetheless. The piano takes the spotlight in the minor-mode middle section, but then welcomes the cello back to sing out once again, its theme graced with an even more decorative accompaniment than before.
If the second movement belongs to the cello, it is the piano that captures the ear in the third movement Allegro passionato, a scherzo featuring strongly assertive keyboard writing that makes the piano a major presence in the sonority. Adding to its punch and impact are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms and “oomphy” syncopations reminiscent of those in the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. In this movement it is the cello that gets to shine in the middle section, where it hums out a wistful melody of irregular phrase lengths that suggests the influence of folksong.
The sonata concludes with a gentle rondo of uncomplicated design written in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83. The simple, rhythmically repetitive tune that opens the movement alternates with a series of short contrasting episodes that, even when cast in the minor mode, seem only designed to highlight all the more the contentment to be gained by returning to the major.