PROGRAM NOTES: Concert  Sunday Afternoons of Music (2/22/04)

Gary Hoffman, Cello
Philippe Bianconi, Piano


Cello Sonata No.1 in E Minor, Opus 38
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms wrote over 100 chamber music scores, but only two dozen survived his intense self criticism and his concern about composing in the shadow of Beethoven. His "Cello Sonata No.1" was the first duo sonata that Brahms allowed to be published. Three movements were written during a concert tour in 1862. (Brahms received considerable acclaim as a pianist.) By the time the score was completed in 1865, Brahms had discarded an Adagio and added a new finale which pays tribute to Bach with its inventive fugal structure. 

There is a darkly somber cast to the opening Allegro ma non troppo. The unusually low range of the cello writing gives the entire movement a melancholy beauty. A more vigorous second theme only briefly imparts a more robust character to the music, after which brooding romanticism returns in full sway. The intense atmosphere is embellished by the gravely halting piano chords at the movement's outset. (This movement is quintessential Brahms. It is hard to imagine any other composer writing this music.) The second movement - Allegretto quasi Menuetto and Trio - uses a Classical dance form. This minuet, however, could never be mistaken for Haydn or Mozart. The wistful melody and surprising turns of phrase are pure Brahms. The vigorous fugal Allegro finale salutes Johann Sebastian Bach's "Art of the Fugue." Brahms's mastery of contrapuntal writing comes to the fore in this movement. That Brahms managed to create such a masterful fugue within sonata form merely attests to his genius. Brahms's first extant duo sonata is an extraordinary work! 


Suite No.5 in C Minor for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1011
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The six year period that Johann Sebastian Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at the Court at Cothen proved to be one of the most fertile eras in the composer's creative career. During those Cothen years Bach composed the first book of "The Well Tempered Clavier,"the Two and Three-Part Inventions, the English and French Suites for harpsichord, six sonatas for solo violin, the "Brandenburg Concertos," the four orchestral suites, three sonatas for cello and piano, and the six suites for unaccompanied cello. The latter works were a milestone in the history of the cello.

The background of Bach's composition of these six cello suites remains a mystery. For many years the viola da gamba (bass viol) represented the lower strings in Baroque musical composition. Generally the gamba was used to supplement the harpsichord continuo in chamber and orchestral scores. (Bach wrote suites for the viola da gamba and used the instrument prominently in his "St. Matthew Passion.") The major problem with the mellow toned gamba (which had a register somewhere between that of the present day viola and cello) was its lack of sufficient volume for the larger halls that began to dot the European landscape by the beginning of the 18th century. At one point (after his Cothen period in 1731) Bach introduced an instrument of his own devising - the violincello piccolo, a cello with five strings. The cello, however, became the successor to the gamba. (Telemann also promoted the new instrument in his compositions.) Generally, however, the cello was still used to double the continuo. At best the instrument had a contrapuntal rather than melodic or virtuosic function. 

At Cothen Bach came into contact with two extraordinary musicians - the violinist and gamba player Christian Ferdinand Abel and the cellist Christian Bernard Linike. Either of these virtuosos may have been responsible for Bach's composition of six solo cello suites between 1717 and 1723. In these scores Bach transcended the limitations of Baroque convention. The cello was used as a virtuoso instrument rather than one that merely filled in a bass line. One of the most striking aspects of these suites is that they are unaccompanied. It was as if the composer were announcing the instrument's emergence. He also challenged the technical facility of the exponents of the new instrument. Here the cellist is totally unsupported. The skill of the performing artist is on display.

Each of Bach's cello suites is in six movements: 1) Prelude, 2) Allemande, 3) Courante, 6) Sarabande, 5) Minuet or Gavotte, and 6) Gigue. The fifth suite is one of only two in a minor key. (The "Suite No.2 in D Minor," BWV 1008 is similar in that respect.) Most uniquely Bach directs the cellist to tune his "A" string down a tone to "G" in the fifth suite. The opening Prelude is the only one in these cello suites to be cast in the form of a French overture - a slow opening section followed by a rapid two voiced fugue. There is extensive figuration and dotted rhythms in the Allemande - a totally new use of the solo cello even by the standards of these suites. The light, rapid Courante is the French version of the dance rather than the Italian model employed in the other suites. The Sarabande developed in Spain where it was introduced by the Moors in the 17th century. Bach's sarabandes are often his most eloquent musical expositions. The two gavottes are both in minor modes and the final Gigue concludes the score on a melancholy note. 

The original manuscript of these cello suites has been lost. Contemporary performances have been based on facsimiles by Bach's widow Anna Magdalena and his student Kellner. These copied manuscripts often omit bowings, tempo markings, and ornaments. Many cellists have produced their own performing versions of these scores. The great cellist, conductor, and humanitarian Pablo Casals was responsible for introducing these remarkable works to 20th century audiences. While his approach was highly romanticized, Casals's deep reverence for Bach and his innate humanity shine through every bar (in his pioneering recordings of these suites). The distinguished cellist and teacher Janos Starker believes that "all the observable changes (from Bach's time) whether they involve notes, ornaments, phrases, dynamics, or tempi should be attributed to the personal expressive desire of each player, and the validity of each approach will rest solely on the communicative power of its deliverer. No tradition or truth can be invoked to justify any attempt which does not satisfy the needs and requirements of the already accepted standards of instrumental playing of our time…Once I played Bach like Casals but I have learned better. Students must learn the modern approach of the instrument." Yet a historically informed performance of these works is as much a personal artistic choice as a performance conceived in more contemporary terms. Likewise Casals's more expressive approach (with its roots in the 19th century concept of cello playing and composition) is equally valid for its deeply felt eloquence. (Casals worshipped Bach above all other composers. Also a masterful conductor, Casals led remarkably passionate performances of the orchestral suites, "Brandenburg Concertos," and solo instrumental concertos.) One of the fascinating aspects of these scores and the mysteries surrounding them is that each performer must bring his own personal concept and approach to the music. These works totally reconceived the cello as a solo instrument. Today another distinguished cellist illuminates Bach's glorious music! 


Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Minor, Opus 36
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg, the leading musical voice of Norwegian nationalism, is often viewed as a creator of folksy miniatures. (Prior to Grieg, Niels Gade - a composer admired and championed by Mendelssohn - had made a distinctive contribution beyond the borders of Norway.) Grieg wrote that "music which matters, however national it may be, is lifted high above the purely national level." The elaborate Cello Sonata may well be Grieg's most imposing work. The score had its premiere in October 1883 by the cellist Friedrich Grutzmacher with the composer at the piano. (This was the same Grutzmacher who adapted themes by Luigi Boccherini into a virtuoso concerto - a bogus work that for many years was thought to be by Boccherini himself.)

The opening tempest tossed Allegro agitato represents the composer at his most intense. The opening subject (enunciated by the cello) has a fierce quality that is rare for this composer. The second theme is quintessential Grieg - warmly lyrical, very Norwegian. The quiet Andante is based on a theme from Grieg's incidental music to "Sigurd Jorsalfar," Opus22 (1872). There is a stormy middle section before the processional theme returns. A mini recitative-cadenza for the solo cello ushers in the concluding Allegro - a vigorous folk dance. The music's underlying fury points to the score's ambivalent nature. This is Grieg at his most agitated. Beneath the high spirits lurks a more somber tone.

Grieg's friend the composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) recalled "I was very proud of having made his acquaintance, for since childhood, I had loved his music…when I first heard Grieg, it was as if a breath of mountain air had come to me." The Cello Sonata presents Grieg in a highly serious, intense musical discourse - musical romanticism at its twilight hour.

Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen


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