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Program Notes: Nicolas Altstaedt

Henri Dutilleux
Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher

Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906-1999), founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, was an immensely important figure in 20th-century music. With a family fortune based on a controlling share of the Hoffman-LaRoche pharmaceutical empire, he commissioned works from some of the century’s greatest composers. These commissioned works include Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.

In 1976 Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich set about to celebrate Sacher’s 70th birthday by commissioning new works for solo cello from 12 of the Western world’s leading composers: Conrad Beck, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Wolfgang Fortner, Alberto Ginastera, Cristóbal Halffter, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Klaus Huber, Witold Lutosławski … and Henri Dutilleux.

Each piece was to use the dedicatee’s name spelled out ‘musically’, i.e., with each letter representing a musical pitch – Es being the German notation of E flat, H being B natural and R (re in the language of solfège) as D. The spelled out musical motive to be used was therefore:  E flat-A-C-B flat-E-D.

In his works Dutilleux had a tendency not to introduce his thematic material in complete form right away but rather to slowly unveil it, as he does at the opening of the first movement of his Trois strophes. First we hear E flat, then E flat-A, then E flat-A-C-B natural, and then finally the entire series of pitches making up the ‘musical spelling’ of the name Sacher. He also likes to ‘anchor’ his musical gestures around stable recurring pitches, from which his gestures depart and to which they constantly return, as is the case in this movement with the augmented 5th B flat – F# at the bottom of the cello’s pitch range. (The cello’s normal range extends down only to low C, but for this work Dutilleux has the instrument tuned down to low B flat.) Near the end of this movement he introduces a short quotation in quivering 32nd-note double-stop tremolo from Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, yet another work commissioned by Sacher.

The second movement, marked Andante sostenuto, explores the rich low register of the cello, but for most of its duration only hints obliquely at the intervals making up the musical spelling of Sacher’s name, which is revealed in six bold strokes just before the end.

This musical cryptogram also inspires the Vivace last movement, but it is buried in the intervals of the whirling pattern of triplet 16ths of the opening and in various transpositions and transformations of these pitches throughout.

While the pitches corresponding to the name Sacher may be the point of departure for this work, Dutilleux’s real ‘subject’ in these three movements is the resonance of the cello itself, and the range of possible ways for summoning it up and manipulating it.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor  BWV 1011

The six cello suites were written between 1717 and 1723, when Bach was employed as Kapellmeister to the music-loving Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. But after Bach’s death, they seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century they were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Intrigued by a 19th-century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began performing them in public and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world, leading to another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

*                      *                      *

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances from across Europe all in the same key, was normally comprised of the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante, the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue. All of the dances are in two-part binary form, with each part played twice. Harmonically, the first part moves from the home key to end in the dominant, with the second part moving back to cadence in the home key again.

Optional dances were often inserted to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. These included the courtly minuet, the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. They often occurred in contrasting pairs, with the first minuet, gavotte or bourrée being played again (without repeats) after the second, to give a rounded A-B-A form to the whole. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

*                      *                      *

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 is somewhat unusual in having its Prelude in the form of a French overture, i.e. with a slow, pompous and dead serious opening section constructed in phrases that lurch forward in dotted rhythms, followed by a quick section with a fugal texture. Bach’s opening section establishes a mood of gravitas with its triple- and quadruple stops on many of the section’s downbeats. But as for the ‘fugue’ meant to follow, how to write polyphonic music on a single-line instrument? Bach solves this problem by writing such a bouncy, well-balanced and catchy fugue subject that listeners end up ‘hearing’ the other voices in their head.

This is the Central-Bank magic of quantitative easing applied to harmonic voice-leading. It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand.

The Courante employs the same multiple-stop emphasis on downbeats as in the Prelude, but the effect is more dance-like because instead of dotted rhythms this movement uses ‘running’ notes, as its name implies, to keep things moving between points of rhythmic emphasis.

The emotional heart of this suite is its Sarabande, which contains no multiple-stop chords at all, just a steady stream of 8th notes in a single melodic line roving restlessly over more than two octaves of sonic space. While its rhythmic surface is flat, the great leaps and many sighing phrases in its melodic line create a state of continuous harmonic tension as implied dissonances hang in the air, to be resolved only in the final cadence arrived at in each section. This is the art of saying much by saying little. The stark beauty of this movement and its indomitable will to move forward, step by step, no matter the pain, made it the work chosen by Yo-Yo Ma to play on September 11, 2002, at the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, as the names of the dead being honoured were read out, one by one.

The two strong upbeats leading into the following Gavotte establish us firmly back on the rough rhythmic terrain of country dancing. In this and the following triplet-obsessed Gavotte II, a constant 1-2, 1-2 pulse makes counting easy, and toe-tapping inevitable.

The concluding Gigue, with its leap-friendly dotted rhythms, agreeably balanced phrases and easy-to-follow repetitive sequences of melody and harmony, ends the suite in a mood of unbridled merriment, despite the ‘serious’ key of C minor in which it is written.

 

Zoltán Kodály
Sonata in B minor for solo cello  Op. 8

“In twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted into the world of cellists who does not play my piece,” boldly declared Zoltán Kodály of his Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 8. And he was right. When composed in 1915 this work represented the most important contribution to the solo cello literature since the Bach cello suites of the early 18th century. But because of its extraordinary technical difficulty and innovative musical language, it struggled to find an audience until Hungarian cellist János Starker (1924-2013) recorded it in 1939, winning a Grand Prix du Disque for his efforts. And as its fame grew, he went on to record it again – three more times.

The sonata’s roots lie deep in Hungarian folk music, which Kodály had studied in his travels through the Hungarian countryside with Béla Bartók in 1908. Specifically, the Sonata inhabits the sound world of the Hungarian folk lament, with which it shares the same improvisatory feel, parlando rubato (free reciting) performance style, and downward-seeking melodies. Its harmonies are non-functional but rather modal, with a preference for the pentatonic scale. And yet Kodály manages to fit these non-standard features into the formal structures of traditional Western-European art music.

This is a powerful piece, a piece that grabs you by the throat and impresses itself on you. The reason is easy to see. As Kodály says: “What musical features are characteristic of Hungarian music? In general, it is active rather than passive, an expression of will rather than emotion. Aimless grieving and tears of merriment do not appear in our music. Even the Székely [region] laments radiate resolute energy.”

This resolute energy is on full display as the work opens. It begins with two quadruple-stop B minor chords, followed by a defiant theme in a sarabande rhythm, heavily weighted on the second beat of the bar. Motivic elements announced in these opening bars will permeate the movement. The sonata’s second theme is much quieter and features a recurring murmur of neighbour notes that continually shadow its melody lines. The development deals almost exclusively with the first theme and climaxes in an orgy of trills, leading to a recapitulation which, by compensation, deals mostly with the second theme. Each section in this movement clearly opens with quadruple-stop chords, giving a degree of formal clarity to the whole.

The second movement Adagio comes closest in this sonata to imitating the sound of the human voice. Beginning its low lament deep at the bottom of the instrument’s register it is soon accompanied by the echoing ornate melody of a shepherd’s pipe and a plucked low drone, as if from a lyre, that acts as an anchoring pitch for much of the movement. Playing both arco and pizzicato at the same time, the cello imitates a solo voice in company with a fitful instrumental accompaniment. The emotional outpouring reaches a height of improvisatory frenzy in a middle section rife with quivering tremolos and rapidly accelerating figurations, before returning to the darkly contemplative mood of its opening bars.

The third movement Allegro molto vivace is a major test of endurance for the performer. It contains some of the most challenging technical passages in the cello repertoire as the instrument is called upon to imitate a wide range of folk instruments, from the jangling timbre of the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, to the bagpipes (with drone 5ths in the bass), and plucked instruments such as the lyre. Unfolding as a series of textural variations, it alludes strongly to the repertoire of verbunkos melodies, played by gypsy bands in the 19th century to accompany town recruitment drives into the army. And the ‘flashiness’ of gypsy fiddling is everywhere apparent in variation after variation as this movement drives to its frenetic conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Winterlude – Suite Saturday with Jean-Guihen Queyras

A Bit of History

Few scholars doubt that Western music was better off for the release of a certain “Bach, Johann Sebastian” from the county jail in Weimar where he had languished, in unsuitable company, for the better part of a month in the autumn of 1717. Court organists can be a stroppy crew at the best of times, and court music directors even more so. But Bach, court organist and music director at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, had pushed ducal patience to the limit.

The cause of all this workplace turmoil was a job offer that Bach had received from the Duke’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. In his rush to pack his bags and cancel his magazine subscriptions, it appears that Bach had failed to observe the finer points of court etiquette – like getting official permission to leave – and several weeks in hoosegow was Officialdom’s response.

Now, readers of a no-nonsense mindset will no doubt be wondering just where all this is leading, and the answer is simple: it leads to the six suites for solo cello that Bach composed at the court of Prince Leopold in or around 1720.

The Prince, you see, was a Calvinist. He had no need for the type of liturgical warbling that composers at Catholic courts were required to produce en masse, as it were. But the Prince was indeed a music-lover. He is said to have played the harpsichord, the violin, and perhaps also the viola da gamba. When the orchestra at the court of Prussia was dissolved in 1714, Leopold eagerly scooped up the best orchestral players to form the core of his own musical establishment and made instrumental music the centrepiece of his princely entertainments.

Bach’s move from Weimar to the court of Prince Leopold, then, pointed his compositional activities firmly in the direction of secular music, and it was to his tenure as the Prince’s Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723 that we owe such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and the Six Suites for Solo Cello.

* * *

No autographed manuscript of the cello suites has survived, although numerous copies were made, the most authoritative being that of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made c.1730. After Bach’s death, these works seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century these works were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Having been intrigued by a 19th- century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began to study the cello suites seriously and performing them in public. Then in 1936 he recorded Suites 1 & 2 at the Abbey Road Studios in London and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world and Casals’ recordings from the 1930s are still an important point of reference for cellists performing today, alongside another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

 

The Baroque Dance Suite

Bach’s time at the court of Anhalt-Köthen had one lasting influence on his compositional life: it instilled in him a love of the dance, as evidenced by the number of dance suites he composed while there.

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances all in the same key, was the ideal DJ party mix for an evening of toe-tapping entertainment among the European middle to upper classes with a taste for international musical culture. In its standard form it presented a buffet-style sampling of the major musical styles of Europe: the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante (or its peppier Italian variant, the corrente), the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue.

Additional optional dances known as galanteries were often added to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. Among these insertions were the courtly minuet (or menuet in French), the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

All of the dances following the prelude are composed in binary (two-part) form. The task of the first part is to find its way to the key of the dominant (five scale tones up from the home key) and land on a satisfying cadence there in its final bar. The job of the second part is then to find its way back to the original key and lay down an even more satisfying cadence – a kind of “Honey, I’m home!” gesture – to let you know that the piece is now finally over. The fact that each of these two parts is normally played twice seemed to matter little to the Baroque ear.

One other practice worthy of note is that of returning to the first of the minuets, gavottes or bourrées after playing the second (contrasting) one, giving a rounded A-B-A form to this brace of optional inserted dances.

* * *

Dance suites were a popular genre of keyboard music in the Baroque period but writing for a solo instrument like the cello, that could play only a single melodic line, posed distinct challenges. Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

But hold on. How do you play harmonies – which is to say chords – on an instrument that only plays a single melodic line? Multi-string chord-playing is possible, of course, but writing multiple stops in every bar is a sure way to send your performer into physio looking for multiple finger splints. The answer is to imply the harmonies you want your listener to hear by slyly emphasizing – and frequently returning to – important fundamental chord notes and tendency tones so that one actually begins to hear a multi-voiced harmonic structure beneath all the fancy filigree. This is how harmonic tension and anticipation is created and when done well you find yourself expecting a certain chord pattern to follow another one – even if neither is stated outright.

This the monetary magic of Quantitative Easing applied to harmonic voice-leading.It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand, this aural perceptual “dance within the dance.”

 

A Few Recommendations

While every listener will have his or her favourites from among the 42 individual dance movements in this collection of suites, the following have etched their way into my musical memory in a way that I cannot, in all honesty, fail to mention.

The opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G has almost become synonymous with Baroque cello music itself. Its nobility of sentiment far transcends what one might expect to admire in a simple repetitive pattern of broken chord figures and connecting scales. The key of G is important here, as the bottom two strings, low G and the D above it, are open strings on the cello and Bach plays to the natural resonance of these two strings in crafting this prelude. The result is a rocking, undulating pattern of tones that evokes a sense of being at peace with the world.

Bach’s sense of sonic resonance is operating at a high level, as well, in the massive build-up of sound in the Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, but this one puts you through the ringer. It features the same rocking pattern of wide-stretching broken chords, made all the more sonorous by the stabilizing presence of the low G used as a pedal tone beneath increasingly dissonance harmonies striving above it.

For sheer grit and dogged resolve it would be difficult to beat the headlong thrust of the Courante from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. This dance turns the cello into a veritable street fighter with bravado to spare. The perky lilt of the Courante from the Suite No. 6, however, makes this same dance form into a real toe-tapper by simply arranging 8ths and 16ths in the right pattern of leaps and scales.

Among the sarabandes, that of the Suite No. 2 D minor wins the prize for wringing the greatest amount of expression out of a single, slow melodic line. But the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C minor is memorable in a different way. Consisting entirely of 8th notes leaping widely over the entire range of the instrument, it manages nonetheless to tell a gripping story full of harmonic tension and much anticipated tension release.

There really is no contest among the galanteries. The Bourrée from the Suite No. 3 in C major has been a favourite since my early adolescence, probably because of the number of popular arrangements that have been made of it. Its easy- going mood and self-evident harmonic drive make it the sort of thing you hum to yourself in the shower. Almost as hummable is the Bourrée from the Suite No. 4 in E flat, with its wonderfully symmetrical phrases.

The gigue with the street cred to really jig it up big time is the one from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. The huge leaps in this movement give this dance movement a specially memorable swagger that stays in the memory long after it has finished.

And finally, a special note of admiration is due to the cellist himself, who in the Suite No. 6 in D will be playing, on a four-stringed cello, a piece originally written for a five- stringed instrument!

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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