PROGRAM NOTES: Edgar Moreau, cello
by Eric Bromberger
Sonata No. 3 in G Minor for Viola da Gamba and Keyboard, BWV 1029
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes
A viola da gamba was–and still is, for that matter–a viol held between the legs when it is played. It is the counterpart of the viola da braccia, which was held beneath the chin or against the chest. Eventually the viola da braccia grew somewhat smaller and became the modern viola (its original name survives in the German word for viola: Bratsche). As a performing instrument, the viola da gamba essentially disappeared, to be kept alive only by enthusiasts for performances on original instruments, and most modern performances of Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are given by either viola or cello with piano accompaniment.
It has been difficult to date the three sonatas Bach wrote for this combination of instruments. Are they from his years as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723), when he wrote the greater part of his secular music and served a prince who played the viola da gamba? Or do they come from his tenure as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig? No one is sure. Perhaps sensibly, the editors of The New Grove Dictionary throw up their hands and play it safe, noting that these sonatas were written sometime between 1720 and 1739. These sonatas are notable for the liberation of the keyboard part: no longer is it relegated to providing a simple bass line beneath the melodic instrument, and here the two instruments become equal partners in the musical enterprise.
In the first two sonatas, Bach adopted the sequence of movements of the Italian sonata di chiesa, or church sonata: slow-fast-slow-fast. But the Sonata in G Minor is the only one without an opening slow movement: Bach opts for a threemovement form opening with a vigorous Vivace–the firmlyaccented main theme here is somewhat reminiscent of the opening of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The other two sonatas have an Andante slow movement, but here Bach sets the middle movement at a slower tempo: this Adagio attains a sort of nobility on its long-spanned melodic lines and the steady accompaniment in the piano. The concluding Allegro seems at first to promise a fugue, but this is in fact very accomplished imitative writing, with the melodic line slipping smoothly between the stringed instrument and keyboard as each has the principal part, then steps back to echo the other.
Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano
Born December 10, 1822, Liege
Died November 8, 1890, Paris
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes
This cello sonata is an arrangement, made shortly after Franck’s death, of his Violin Sonata in A Major, originally composed in 1886. This sonata is one of the finest examples of Franck’s use of cyclic form, a technique he had adapted from his friend Franz Liszt, in which themes from one movement are transformed and used over subsequent movements. The Sonata in A Major is a particularly ingenious instance of this technique: virtually the entire work is derived from the quiet and unassuming opening of the first movement, which then evolves endlessly across the sonata. Even when a new theme seems to arrive, it will gradually be revealed as a subtle variant of one already heard.
The piano’s quiet fragmented chords at the beginning of the Allegretto ben moderato suggest a theme-shape that the cello takes over as it enters: this will be the thematic cell of the entire sonata. The piano has a more animated second subject, but the gently-rocking cello figure from the opening dominates this movement, and Franck reminds the performers constantly to play molto dolce, sempre dolce, dolcissimo.
The mood changes completely at the fiery second movement, marked passionato, and some critics have gone so far as to claim that this Allegro is the true first movement and that the opening Allegretto should be regarded as an introduction to this movement. In any case, this movement contrasts its blazing opening with more lyric episodes, and listeners will detect the original theme-shape flowing through some of these.
The Recitativo–Fantasia is the most original movement in the sonata. The piano’s quiet introduction seems at first a re-visiting of the germinal theme, though it is–ingeniously–a variant of the passionato opening of the second movement. The cello makes its entrance with an improvisation-like passage (this is the fantasia of the title), and the entire movement is quite free in both structure and expression: moments of whimsy alternate with passionate outbursts.
After the expressive freedom of the third movement, the finale restores order with pristine clarity: it is a canon in octaves, with one voice following the other at the interval of a measure. As this movement proceeds it recalls thematic material from earlier movements. Gradually, the music takes on unexpected power and drives to a massive (perhaps too massive) coda and a thunderous close.
Franck wrote this sonata for his fellow Belgian, the great violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who gave the première in Brussels in November 1886. The composer Vincent D’Indy recalled that première: “The violin and piano sonata was performed . . . in one of the rooms of the Museum of Modern Painting at Brussels. The seance, which began at three o’clock, had been very long, and it was rapidly growing dark. After the first Allegretto of the sonata, the performers could scarcely read the music. Now the official regulations forbade any light whatever in rooms which contained paintings. Even the striking of a match would have been matter for offense. The public was about to be asked to leave, but the audience, already full of enthusiasm, refused to budge. Then Ysaÿe was heard to strike his music stand with his bow, exclaiming [to the pianist], “Allons! Allons!” [“Let’s go!”] And then, unheard-of marvel, the two artists, plunged in gloom . . . performed the last three movements from memory, with a fire and passion the more astounding to the listeners in that there was an absence of all externals which could enhance the performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of night.”
Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano
Born November 24, 1934, Engels
Died August 3, 1998, Hamburg
Approximate Duration: 22 minutes
Alfred Schnittke’s Cello Sonata No. 1 dates from 1978, when the composer–then 44–was still living in Moscow. This was a particularly productive period for Schnittke. In 1976 he completed the moving and impressive Piano Quintet and the following year he composed the two works that suddenly established his name in the West: the Concerto Grosso No. 1 and his notorious cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which brought him equal measures of fame and excoriation. Schnittke had always been regarded as a part of what little avant-garde the Soviet Union had, and the Cello Sonata No. 1–bleak and dark–flew in the face of every canon of Social Realism; one Western critic has gone so far as to describe this sonata as “a grim portrait of Brezhnev gloom.”
The Cello Sonata No. 1 is in the traditional three movements, but Schnittke reverses expectations with a slowfast- slow sequence of movements. The opening Largo is quite brief. Cello and piano seem to inhabit different worlds here, so dissimilar is their music. The cello sings a brooding and melancholy meditation into which the piano makes the briefest of intrusions. But those intrusions bring whiffs of order into this bleak world, tiny glimpses of consonance and clarity amid the darkness.
By complete contrast, the Presto is a phantasmagoric rush, a perpetual-motion movement that is broken by abrasive, assaultive episodes. The cello opens with seemingly-endless ostinato-figures, and into this rush the piano explodes like a series of pistol shots; along the way the music is driven by almost mindless little tunes full of manic energy. Yet there are some wonderful sounds in this percussive movement, and it drives to a sonorous climax.
Longer than the first two movements combined, the concluding Largo incorporates some of the spirit (and the music) of both those movements. It opens with the cello’s jagged song of grief, and over the long span of this movement Schnittke spins music of a bleak but somber beauty. At the end, its energy spent, the sonata drifts into silence.
Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Opus 3
Born February 22, 1810, Z• elazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
Approximate Duration: 9 minutes
In the fall of 1829, Chopin–nineteen years old, restless, dissatisfied with his career, and upset by the political troubles in Poland–was sent by his father to spend some time as a guest at the estate of Prince Radziwiłł in Antonin. Radziwiłł was a cellist, a composer, and a generous man. More to the point, he had two beautiful teenaged daughters, Wanda and Elise, and Chopin made a happy visit with the Radziwiłł family. Wanda was a pianist, and–as a gift to Wanda and her father Chopin composed a polonaise for the two of them to play together. Chopin made his motives clear in a letter to a friend: “I have written an alla Polacca for the violoncello with accompaniment. It is nothing more than a glittering trifle for the salon, for ladies. I wanted Princess Wanda, the daughter of the cello-playing Prince, to learn it. She is still very young– perhaps seventeen–and beautiful.” Presumably father and daughter did play this music that fall, and Chopin wrote a slow introduction for it the following year; the music was published in 1831 under the title Introduction and Polonaise Brillante.
Despite Chopin’s disparagement of this music as “a glittering trifle,” it is considerably more difficult than he makes it sound, and in fact Wanda and her father must have been first-rate musicians if they could manage this piece. As its name implies, a polonaise is of Polish origin. In its original form, it was in triple time and at a moderate tempo, and it could be sung or danced as part of ceremonial processions. By the eighteenth century it had become a dance form, and in his thirteen polonaises for piano Chopin transformed it into a brilliant and fast dance fired by his intense national feelings. Here he makes it a pleasing display piece for cello and piano. A lengthy introduction, full of long runs for the piano, eventually grows quite animated and leads into the Alla Polacca, which Chopin marks Allegro con spirito. Chopin may mark the piano part elegantamente near the start, but soon he is reminding the duo to play con forza and brillante. This is exciting music, and it drives to a grand close.