Distance – Mario Brunello plays Bach, Cage & Weinberg at the National Gallery in London

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1502-4), by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano

Mario Brunello (cello, below)

J.S. Bach Solo Cello Suite no.5, BWV1011 (c1720s)
Cage 4’33” (1952)
Weinberg Sonata for Solo Cello no.1, Op.72 (1960)

Room 61, The National Gallery, London; Thursday 7 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A rare treat indeed – the chance to witness a concert in the very heart of the National Gallery. Given by cellist Mario Brunello, the hour of music was entirely inspired by the Cima work The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, a powerful and colourful depiction of the apostle’s doubting of Christ’s resurrection.

Brunello chose three pieces to bring the work to musical life, the first of which was entirely appropriate. Cellists such as Steven Isserlis have long held a belief that the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach carry a parallel with the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, and in choosing the Fifth Suite Brunello picked the one most closely associated with Christ’s death. The Sarabande in particular is some of Bach’s most extraordinary music, a single line portraying in vivid detail the darkest of moments, dispensing almost entirely with obvious rhythms or harmonic movement. The solemn prelude and faster dance music tends to occupy the lower registers of the instrument, and here it found a perfect match in the rich baritone of Brunello’s 1600 Maggini cello. Meanwhile the wispy lines of the second Gavotte were especially effective, tracing invisible lines around the performing space.

The second piece was a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, a work that will divide opinions for eternity it seems. Never failing to raise a smile or a more extreme reaction, the three movements of silence – each conducted in by Brunello, as the composer instructs – were here an effective postscript to the Bach. While inevitably there was some extraneous noise from people walking around in the gallery, and a brief solo from a vibrating phone in the middle distance, the period of reflection if anything enhanced the impact of the Bach that had gone before, whilst enabling us to focus afresh on the painting behind Brunello’s left shoulder. I did not time the ‘performance’, though it felt a lot longer than the specified duration – perhaps an indication that, in a busy city, 4’33” can be a surprising length of time.

Coming out of the silence with the Suite no.1 for solo cello by Mieczysław Weinberg was a fascinating move. Only in the last five or so years has the music of this Soviet / Polish composer gained recognition, thanks in part to Brunello’s close associate Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Brunello grew the first movement out of nothing to a powerful apex before dropping back to the low note where it started, while the second movement was a charming yet muted dance, played as though the real drama was being held back. And so it proved, for the final movement started with such ferocity as to knock the listener back in their seat. Three powerful bow strokes of unison ‘C’s – the same tonal centre of the Bach – brought all manner of parallels with the three hours between crucifixion and death, though the violence was also portraying Thomas’s disbelieving prods at Christ’s side.

Either way this was incredibly powerful in its realisation, Brunello making up for the occasional tuning idiosyncrasy with a forceful tone which seemed to grow ever more powerful as the range went higher. Weinberg’s music carries great meaning, given the composer’s responses to the tragedies of his personal life, and its use here with Bach and Cage put it in the best possible context. Even the weather responded in kind – when we entered the gallery it was raining, but we emerged blinking into powerful sunshine. A true darkness to light experience.

Further listening and reading

You can experience the same program from the National Gallery on this Spotify playlist, including Mario Brunello’s recording of the Bach:

Meanwhile if you are interested in more Weinberg, the release below, of chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet, is a substantial document completed by Gidon Kremer with the ECM label:

Wigmore Mondays – David Greilsammer plays Scarlatti and Cage

david-greilsammerDavid Greilsammer (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas: in D minor (Kk213), in D minor (Kk141) (12:11), in E (Kk531) (17:57), in B minor (Kk27) (23:58), in B minor (Kk87) (28:33), in A minor (Kk175) (35:25), in E (Kk380) (42:01), in D (Kk492)

interspersed with

Cage Sonatas for prepared piano: nos. 14 (8:47), 13 (15:20), 11 (21:31), 1 (26:23), 12 (32:38), 16 (38:55) & 5 (46:42)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 February, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

John Cage is a composer whose music transcends eras. That bold statement was made into reality by David Greilsammer’s imaginatively conceived recital of piano music at the Wigmore Hall, where innovations of the 18th century from Domenico Scarlatti rubbed shoulders with Cage’s music for ‘prepared’ piano.

The prepared piano is a heavily tampered instrument, beginning as a normal grand piano but ending up festooned with dampers, screws, nuts, bolts and even a rubber eraser. Hearing it in person is a real shock, because the resultant sounds are so far removed from a conventional piano tone that the listener has to instinctively check that it is a keyboard being used. The immediate reaction of raised eyebrows gives way to amazement that the instrument with which we are so familiar can make so many different timbres, clicks and beats.

Cage is often derided for these amendments, but hearing this concert from Greilsammer showed just how original his thinking was. The pure imagination of Scarlatti was also revealed, for his 550 sonatas were initially cast aside, with few published in his lifetime. Subsequently they have been shown to contain music of great freedom, expression and colour, so much so that the first sonata of the recital, no.213 in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalogue, (1:44 on the live broadcast link) – could almost have been by Cage. It helped that Greilsammer exaggerated its sparse contours and slow tempo, but it was a striking way to begin.

Cage’s evocations of the gamelan in his Sonatas made an immediate impact, helped by the fact Greilsammer was literally spinning between the normal piano for the Scarlatti and the prepared piano with little to no time difference. We passed through periods of energy but also reflection, always enjoying the shock of the new and some familiar contours of the old. With each switch it felt like we were being taken into another world.

The energetic Scarlatti pieces were stressed as such by Greilsammer – a punchy Kk141 especially – while on the Cage side the moods could be equally energetic. The contrasts were beautifully chosen, and so were the tonal centres – the rippling Scarlatti Sonata in E major, Kk531 (17:57), went straight into the treble-rich Sonata no.11 (21:31), and a more thoughtful Sonata in B minor Kk27 (23:58) segued into the more percussive Sonata no.12 (26:20) with barely a join in the notes. The same effect could be experienced at 32:38, where a pensive Scarlatti and a free, improvised Cage Sonata no. 12 were effectively joined together, the latter becoming gradually more aggressive as it moved forward.

The final three sonatas in the group were perhaps the most effective, a military-style march of Scarlatti in E major (42:01) cutting to the most evocative gamelan picture from Cage (46:42) and then to the final D major work of the Italian (48:18).

As a brilliantly conceived encore, Greilsammer offered a vision of his own nightmare, playing the right piece on the ‘wrong’ piano. This was the last Scarlatti sonata (53:50) – only on the prepared piano rather than the untampered one. It served to show just how surprisingly close the sound worlds of these two composers can be, and how music can effortlessly transcend gaps of three centuries.

Thought provoking and eyebrow-raising, this was a wholly stimulating concert and should be heard again!

Further listening

David Greilsammer’s album of Scarlatti and Cage is available to stream on Spotify:

New Year Feature – The Sound of Silence

sound-of-silence

First of all, happy new year! I hope 2016 is good for you, and that Arcana can at least play some part in bringing you some musical treats and writing that you will hopefully enjoy.

It may seem an odd thing for a music site to talk about, but I’m going to kick off the New Year by promoting the virtue of silence.

Silence is good on so many levels. It allows the full formation of thoughts, provides a necessary break from the frenetic activity of day-to-day life, and – for me at least – it cleanses the mind over a holiday period such as Christmas, after which the joy of music can be appreciated more than ever. Not that I made an active bid for freedom from music this time around, but stepping away from it for a bit was incredibly useful.

Pop songwriters and classical composers have used silence to their advantage on many occasions. One use of silence I often think of is incredibly minute but works an absolute treat, where King Crimson go for the jugular half way through 21st Century Schizoid Man:

Perhaps the most famous classical example is John Cage in the sound-free 4’33” – which, depending on your view, is a work of genius or flawed publicity stunt. I would definitely tend towards the former, because if you ‘listen’ to 4’33” (after the pretty loud introduction!) each performance is different – because all manner of tiny micro-sounds make themselves known in your environment:

The use of silence goes much further back of course. Can you imagine the works of Beethoven without the use of silence? How on earth would the start of the Fifth Symphony sound without it…

…or the beginning of the second Razumovsky string quartet?

…or, taking a fantastic example from the last century, the very end of SibeliusSymphony no.5?

All show just how powerful silence can be when used strategically. Yet if experienced over longer periods of time it takes on an even more special significance.

A New Year’s Day walk brought this home to me in vivid form. After hearing the radio for the first hour or so of the day – and inevitably U2’s New Year’s Day was included in this! – it was out for a walk where we were staying in Faversham, Kent.

Our walk, designed to cure the hangover from the previous night’s celebrations, took us out beyond the town and heading for the reeds and marshland close to a remote place called Oare, and its haunted pub The Shipright Arms.

Here all that could be heard were calls from what turned out to be little egrets, the wind in the reeds, and something quite astonishing in the whirring of a swan’s wings as it took off on the adjacent lake.

little-egret

Little Egret (c) Ben Hogwood

Yet the wonderful truth was that if you stood and listened, most of what you could hear was…nothing. It was a cleansing experience, and one that has set me up to enjoy what 2016 has to offer musically. We at Arcana hope you choose to enjoy it with us…and share your moments of music and  silence with us…and that you have a Happy New Year!

Ben Hogwood – editor, Arcana.fm