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8.554657 - POPPER: Romantic Cello Showpieces

David Popper (1843-1913)

Romantic Cello Showpieces

The cellist David Popper was born in Prague in 1843, the son of the Prague Cantor. He studied the cello there under the Hamburg cellist Julius Goltermann, who had taken up an appointment at the Prague Conservatory in 1850. It was through Liszt's then son-in-law, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, that Popper was recommended in 1863 to a position as Chamber Virtuoso at the court of the Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Konstantin von Hohenzollern, who had had a new residence with a concert hall built at Löwenberg. The musical establishment there was disbanded, however, in 1869, on the death of the Prince. In 1867 Popper made his debut in Vienna and the following year was appointed principal cellist at the Court Opera, serving also for a time as cellist in the Hellmesberger Quartet. In 1872 he married Liszt's pupil Sophie Menter, described by her teacher as his only legitimate daughter as a pianist and the greatest woman pianist of the age, later to join the staff of the St Petersburg Conservatory. The following year they left Vienna to embark on a series of concert tours throughout Europe and in 1882 he undertook a tour of Spain and Portugal with the French violinist Emil Sauret. His marriage was dissolved in 1886, the year in which Liszt died during a reluctant stay in Bayreuth, where Sophie Menter and her friends had visited him, as his life drew to a close. In 1896 Popper settled in Budapest to teach at the Conservatory that Liszt had established there, serving for a time as cellist in the quartet led by Jenö Hubay, the son of the first head of the Conservatory string department, who had inherited his father's position as professor of violin in 1886. In the same year Popper joined Hubay and Brahms in a performance in Budapest of Brahms's Piano Trio in C minor, continuing an earlier connection with the composer. Popper died at Baden, near Vienna, in 1913.

As a composer Popper is remembered for his compositions for cello. These include four concertos, now seldom heard in the concert hall, and, better known, a number of salon pieces. His studies remain well enough known to aspirant cellists, while his other works include compositions that give an opportunity for virtuoso display.

The suite for cello and orchestra Im Walde (‘In the Forest’) was written in 1882. It has an introductory movement, Eintritt, that couples virtuosity with music of considerable charm. Gnomentanz (‘Dance of the Gnomes’) frames in a sinister G minor a central section of lighter mood. Andacht (‘Devotion’) brings tender intensity, with the horns of elfland faintly blowing as the movement comes to a close. This is followed by Reigen (‘Round Dance’), in a lively G major, and a meditative Herbstblume (‘Autumn Flower’). The suite ends with Heimkehr (‘Homecoming’), a cheerful enough occasion that brings a surprising final excursion into fugal texture.

Wie einst in schöner'n Tagen(‘As once in fairer days’), the first of a set of three pieces published in 1892, sometimes paraphrased as Fond Recollections, is as nostalgic as its title suggests. It is here followed by a Gavotte that forms a fine contrast with the familiar virtuosity of Papillon, taken from a set of six character pieces published in Leipzig in 1880.

Popper's Requiem for three cellos and orchestra, Opus 66, was first performed in London in 1891. In memory of his friend Daniel Rahter, it was published in 1892 with prefatory verses:

Thränen, die Musik geworden,

Treue Freundschaft beut sie.

Liebe, die nie enden kann,

Treue Liebe weih't sie.

Freundesherz, das ausgerungen,

Nimm die kleine Gabe:

Was die Freundesseel' gesungen,

Töne, tröste, labe!

(Tears, turned to music,

True friendship offers.

Love that can never end

True love dedicates.

Friend's heart, now gone,

Take this little gift:

What a friend's soul has sung,

Sound out, console, refresh!)

Marked Andante sostenuto, the Requiem is scored for woodwind, timpani and strings, with the three solo cellos sensitively deployed in sonorities that may at first recall Schubert's famous Quintet, before each makes a solo entry .The key shifts from F sharp minor to B flat major in a central section, after which the cellos return to the original key and material, now muted.

There follow two Spanish Dances, from a set of five published between 1883 and 1887. The first of these is a lyrical piece, lacking the sound and fury popularly associated with Spain at the time. Vito, however, is livelier, but without spurious or facile exoticism.

Wiegenlied (‘Cradle-Song’) is the third of the set of pieces that started with Wie einst in schöner'n Tagen. It exploits the gentle lyricism of which the cello is capable, its title a suggestion of its mood rather than anything else. To this Spinnlied offers a marked contrast in its demand for virtuoso agility, as the spinning-wheel turns in a sort of mota perpetuo.

The final Hungarian Rhapsody was published in 1894. It is in the spirit of Liszt's compositions of the same title, making use of a quasi-improvisatory and rhapsodic style in the first section, with a lonely ascent into the highest possible register, before moving on to the inevitable excitement, as the music accelerates towards a triumphant conclusion, a wild dance in which earlier lyricism alternates, before it is forgotten in the whirl of the dance.

Keith Anderson

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