Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello) & Martin Helmchen (piano)
J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.3 in G minor, BWV1029 (late 1730s-early 1740s) (14 minutes)
Stravinsky Suite Italienne (arr. Piatigorsky) (1932/33) (20 minutes)
Brahms Cello Sonata no.1 in E minor Op.38 (1862-5) (23 minutes)
Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November
Pairing Bach with Brahms was a smart move for this concert.
When Bach was writing for the viola da gamba – essentially an early form of cello with no spike and sometimes five strings! – he was one of the first to recognise its potential as a treble instrument as well as a bass.
To that end the three sonatas he published for viola da gamba and ‘continuo’ – which in this case would normally mean a harpsichord. The pieces transcribe well for modern cello and piano though, as can be heard from 1:35 on the broadcast. It took a little while for Marie-Elisabeth Hecker to settle her tone and intonation in this performance, but once evened out the performance is notable for its clarity and expression at the higher end of the cello. This becomes especially obvious in the Adagio slow movement (from 7:00), which takes the form of an aria. The last movement (12:22) is like a fugue, with its question and answer phrases.
Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne comes from a period in his compositional life where he was looking back to the music of classical and baroque times, taking that music as inspiration, and remoulding it into something that sounded much more modern. For his ballet Pulcinella he took the music of Pergolesi (1710-1736) – or a contemporary, as was recently suggested – and gave it new musical clothes, with spiced-up harmonies and colourful orchestration. Several movements from Pulcinella were reworked for violin and piano to become the Suite Italienne, after which point the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky realised with a few more tweaks he could expand the repertoire of his own instrument.
This was done with Stravinsky’s approval, and the results – as you can hear from this concert – are invigorating and humourous. The nip and tuck between cello and piano is brilliantly caught in the Tarantella (29:49) but in truth all the movements carry the same levels of excitement – running through a sprightly Introduzione (17:33), Hecker’s graceful Serenata (20:00), a surprisingly vigorous Aria (23:45), a sombre and slow Minuetto that grows in stature (32:30) before leading into the vivacious Finale (34:48)
The Brahms (beginning at 39:25) is a piece that also looks back for its inspiration – to Bach, who inspires the finale (55:29) and perhaps to classical composers for the second movement minuet (50:00)
Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen give a superb and very fluent performance of this work, getting the balance between cello and the active piano part just right. The similarities between Brahms and Bach are clearest in the two composers’ use of counterpoint – that is a number of different melodies being played simultaneously or in complement to each other.
The flow of melodies in the first movement is unbroken and rather beautiful, especially when the piano briefly switches to a major key (42:13) Elsewhere the mood is darkly passionate and powerfully played.
The Minuet has an attractive poise, enjoying the relative mystery of its central section (from 51:43) while the finale has a steely sound to its theme from the piano (55:29) and the cello’s response (55:37) – all set out as a fugue, developing considerable momentum through to the end, which is straight faced but roundly optimistic at the same time.
This was a brilliantly played account of the Brahms, ideally balanced and communicating the composer’s rich abundance of melodies.
The Spotify playlist below – Looking back to move forward – examines more of Brahms and Stravinsky’s use of techniques of the past to shape their own music of the future. You can also hear Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen in their new disc of the Brahms Cello Sonatas.
by Ben Hogwood