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:

Under the Surface: Antonina Styczeń – Weinberg: Works for flute (Tacet)

Weinberg Flute Concertos: No.1 Op.75 (1961); No.2 Op.148 (1987); 12 Miniatures Op.29bis (1945/83); Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp Op.127 (1979)

Antonina Styczeń (flute), Paweł Czarny (viola), Zuzanna Fedorowicz, Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra / Wojciech Rajski

What’s it all about?

The complete output for flute and orchestra of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), played by an artist of high calibre (and not merely as a flautist!), with the first recording of an arrangement by a composer whose stranding has risen immeasurably over the two decades since his death.

What’s the music like?

Weinberg’s flute concertos provide a revealing insight into his music at key junctures of his career. The First Concerto is one of a group of pieces, including the Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto, that finds Weinberg refocussing his approach to abstract composition in the wake of Stalin’s death; culminating in the formidable cohesion of the Fifth Symphony a year later. Modest in scope, it unfolds from a lively initial Allegro, via a Largo of exquisite poise to a final Allegro whose teasing understatement is brusquely curtailed only at the very last.

By the time of his Second Flute Concerto, Weinberg was struggling with failing health and his eclipse by a younger and ostensibly more provocative generation of composers. Not that this piece evinces defeatism or self-pity; instead refining the conception of its predecessor so that the angular opening Allegro affords potent contrast with a Largo of affecting poignancy, then with a fugitive Allegretto. Allusions to Bach, Gluck et al flit by in the latter as Weinberg reflects on this instrument as also his evolution as a composer across more than five decades.

What makes this disc mandatory for all admirers of Weinberg is its first recording of the 12 Miniatures, initially conceived with piano accompaniment then arranged for string orchestra some 38 years later. On one level a sequence of improvisatory gestures, discreetly contrasted as to texture and expression, they yet emerge as an engaging unity almost despite themselves. Nor is it surprising that, heard in this way, these pieces seem more a product of Weinberg’s last years – during which time his musical idiom became ever more distilled and refractory.

Although never envisaged as other than a chamber work, the Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp might itself be thought a concerto manqué; sharing as it does the concertos’ three-movement form, alongside their undemonstrative juxtaposing of animated and introspective. Debussy’s totemic sonata for these instruments could hardly not be referred to during its course, yet the means-by which they combine, thereby resulting in music of far from untroubled serenity, is Weinberg’s alone. A ‘one-off’ in his output, it could not be mistaken for any other composer.

Do the performances do it justice?

Yes. Antonina Styczeń is a flautist as adept technically as she is insightful interpretively. She enjoys evident rapport with the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra of Sopot, as also her fellow players in the trio. Accounts of the concertos from Anders Jonhäll (Chandos, coupled with the Cello Fantasia and Clarinet Concerto), are more atmospheric while less characterful; among three other recordings of the trio, avoid that on BIS as this substitutes piano for harp – with unfortunate results. The present disc is admirably recorded and informatively annotated.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Styczeń is clearly a musician to watch. In addition to her flute playing, she is also a skilled horse-rider (as is made plain by the booklet photos) and intends to combine these two media in future. Happily, she falls at none of the fences encountered in Weinberg’s music!

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify: