About this Recording
8.557708 - CELLO (THE ART OF THE)
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Chamber Works for Cello
Hummel • Haydn • Chopin

A Short History of the Cello

The violoncello, meaning, in Italian, a small violone, is generally known by the shorter name of ‘cello’, and is a string instrument an octave lower than the viola, its four strings tuned C-G-d-a. Its structure and form correspond to those of the violin, but the neck is relatively shorter and the sides deeper. The bow is somewhat shorter, but stronger than that used for the violin.

As the violin may correspond to the discant, and the viola to the tenor, so the cello was originally identical with the bass of the old viola da braccio family. It had a longer struggle than its two sisters to free itself from the gamba family. In 1740 there appeared in Amsterdam a treatise by Hubert Leblanc, a lawyer and music-lover from France, that throws a characteristic light on the importance of the violoncello in that time. The work is a vigorous defence of the viola da gamba against the violoncello that was slowly encroaching on the former’s territory. This was in fact a completely unintelligible polemic, since at the time there was little literature on the younger instrument that was worth talking about. This was first changed by the Duport brothers, who ranked as the most important champions of the new school of cello-playing both in duo sonatas, such as those of Beethoven, and in chamber music, as, for example, the classical string quartet and quintet.

It was about 1710 that the violoncello acquired its classical dimensions through the Italian violin-maker Antonio Stradivari (1644 or 1648/9-1737), with a body length of 75-76 and a depth of 11.5 centimetres. After that there were many other cellos built, as well as gambas, and until about 1800 instruments of a mixed form from both types, among other things with the change of a straight neck into a neck at an angle. The use of the spike first became customary in about 1860.

The greatest masters of violin-making, such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, also started to make cellos. Montagnana, Grancino, Testore and Tecchler specialised almost exclusively in the instrument.

My instrument, on which I play in the present recording, was made by David Tecchler (1666-after 1743) in Rome in 1727. A master-craftsman from Salzburg, he first went to Venice, where he experienced some hostility, moving in 1705 to Rome where he reached the height of his profession, considered the most important maker there. His splendidly made instruments are marked by their great fullness of tone. He generally preferred very large models, using special wood and a yellow-red varnish. A characteristic is the lengthening of the corners and the particularly wide F holes.

While the gamba remained the instrument of soloists, the cello, then generally with five or six strings, was reduced to strengthening the continuo in the orchestra and in chamber music.

From the end of the seventeenth century Italy took the lead in compositions for the cello. In 1689 Domenico Gabrielli wrote a Ricercar for the cello and laid the foundation for the independent solo literature of the instrument. In the first half of the eighteenth century Vivaldi and Tartini, among others, and, with some virtuosity, Boccherini, wrote sonatas for the cello. The instrument acquired new importance in the transition to the classical period through composers such as Carl Stamitz, Luigi Boccherini, Georg Matthias Monn, and particularly Joseph Haydn, who wrote solo concertos for the cello.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the cantabile playing of the cello acquired growing importance. Generations of romantic composers made use of the particular feeling of which the cello was capable, giving expression to melodic sonority and melancholy resignation. In the chamber music of Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Debussy, and others, cellists could explore the whole range of musical feeling. There were wonderful concertos by Schumann, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Rococo Variations), Brahms (Double Concerto), and Elgar, and works in which the cello had a concertante rôle by Richard Strauss (Don Quixote) and Hindemith.

For me the cello has a particularly fascinating and important place in opera. There it embodies the direct expression of the human soul in music. With its range it has an almost physical affinity with the human and responds directly to it. It is the instrument that can express the deepest feelings of love and death.

Unique in all opera is the cello solo in Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss, my favourite solo: the curtain falls, while the scene is changed, and the cello, free of stage action, becomes the protagonist.

King Philip sings in the great aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo in dialogue with the cello of his isolation and erotic desires; the cello first sinks down, then rises a little, allows a glimmer of hope to be heard, and finally despairs. The music expresses resignation and the cello supports the singer’s feelings.

The duet of Othello and Desdemona at the end of the first act of Verdi’s Otello is accompanied by a cello solo, then joined by the whole cello section; the world of the two lovers is still as it should be, yet Othello conjures away the revenge of Fate on the outsider, too fortunate in his love.

At the beginning of the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre Siegmund and Sieglinde do not know that they are twins. The eyes of the two outcasts meet and they experience happiness for the first and last time. Here too an almost recitative-like cello solo supports the intimacy of the situation.

Agathe’s aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz is accompanied by a pure and romantic cello that reveals to us the unfulfilled love, hope and confidence that the power of evil will not triumph and love will not always remain unfulfilled.

When Cavaradossi, in Puccini’s Tosca, is about to die, the cello and the clarinet, operatic instruments that express despair, accompany him on his last way. A descending chromatic scale shows where his path is leading.

Continuo playing is a fascinating element in opera. Working on recitatives in Mozart’s operas with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a conductor with whom collaboration was among my most decisive artistic encounters, opened a completely new dimension of musical expression. The specific dramatic situations that drive the plot forward are found in the recitatives. Each individual note has its importance, with notes that are violent, pointed, loud, gentle, particularly beautifully played, slow, fast or without vibrato. As a continuo player one is a part of the musical dramatic situation.

The CD: Works by Hummel, Haydn and Chopin.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837):
Grand Sonata in A major for cello and piano, Op. 104

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 in what is now Bratislava and died in Weimar in 1837. At present he is undergoing a remarkable revival, after more than 150 years in which he was virtually forgotten. His extensive list of works is now a source of rediscovery. The son of a violinist, Hummel was exceptionally gifted as a child. For two years Mozart took him into his house in Vienna as a pupil, an unparallelled act of pedagogic generosity on the part of the master. Haydn made him his successor in the Esterházy musical establishment. He rivalled Beethoven for the position of the most important pianist in Vienna, with the verdict not infrequently in Hummel’s favour. Chopin admired him, Schumann, after initial declarations of respect, showed his contempt for him and called him a figure from the past. This is typical of the injustice Hummel suffered. Today he seems to us a bridge between Mozart and Chopin, between the Viennese classical and the high romantic.

Hummel wrote his Cello Sonata in 1824, when he was Kapellmeister at Weimar. The work is characteristic of this transition. It often seems as if one is hearing a cello sonata by Mozart (nothing of the kind exists), mingled with passages of poignancy, while many elements have the force of Beethoven, and the beginning of the first movement offers a melody like a particularly fine theme of Chopin. The second movement is a Romance, that today would be said to have hit quality: the principal theme resembles the 1971 hit-song Butterfly, my Butterfly by the Belgian Daniel Gérard, which topped the hit-parade for months. This shows how a composer of this ability can survive after one and a half centuries of oblivion. In the third movement the internationally celebrated virtuoso pianist comes to the fore: here the cello part is discriminated against in such a way that the important cellist Friedrich Grützmacher in the nineteenth century in his edition proposed a skilful dialogue between cello and piano. Here we have opted for this version.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809):
Trio in G major for flute, cello and piano, Hob. XV:15

Extensive correspondence survives over Haydn’s three Flute Trios, Hob.XV:15-17 from the years 1789-1790. The leading London music publisher Bland travelled personally to Esterháza to buy music from Haydn, who was employed by Prince Esterházy as Kapellmeister. The trios for flute (or, optionally, for violin), cello and piano were exclusively promised to the Vienna publisher Artaria, but England seemed to the old composer sufficiently far away to sell the trios again and to turn into cash once more the triumphant success of his London stay after a tour on which he embarked in 1790.

Haydn’s genius is unmistakable in these trios through his incomparable wit, humour, liveliness and delight in modulation. The rôle of the cello in this trio is not unduly demanding, but here it fulfils again the only apparently subordinate function that I have remarked on in connection with recitative: the cello accompanies the dialogue between flute and piano, showing them how to keep their fantasy within bounds.

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849):
Sonata in G minor for cello and piano Op. 65

Chopin too was one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his time and his compositions are almost exclusively for the piano. It is through his friendship with the famous cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884) that he wrote three of his four chamber-music works for cello and piano.

The Cello Sonata is a late work that he wrote for his friend, with whom he gave the first performance in his last concert in Paris on 16th February 1848. On that occasion the first movement, with which Chopin was not happy, was not played. The work had a difficult birth. ‘I throw the sonata into a corner, then take it up again’, Chopin wrote, expressing his doubts.

In the first movement the theme is stated by the piano and taken up gracefully by the cello. Chopin here combines all the charms of his decorative piano writing with an astonishing feeling for the particular qualities of the cello. The three-part Scherzo of the second movement, with a Trio of melodic delicacy, leads to a much too short central movement: the Largo, its melody stated by the cello, is, in its conciseness, a movement of unforgettable beauty. The Finale with its drive and subtlety effects a balance between the two instruments.

The period of composition of the work was marked by the life-threatening tuberculosis and material want that overshadowed the end of Chopin’s life. As a star and virtuoso of Paris salons he did well, but maintained a corresponding life-style. There were neither royalties nor systems of licensing, and in illness savings were quickly exhausted. The relationship with the great love of his life, the writer George Sand, was over.

Here things came full circle: on 15th October 1849, two days before his death, Chopin was visited by his last friends, his former pupil, his beloved Delfina Potocka, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, a gifted pianist, and Franchomme. Princess Czartoryska and Franchomme began to play the G minor sonata, until a fit of coughing from the sick man brought the concert to an end. A few days later Franchomme was one of the bearers of the coffin, performing this last service for Chopin.

Franz Bartolomey
English Version: Keith Anderson

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