Wigmore Mondays – Pekka Kuusisto & Nicolas Altstaedt: Music for violin and cello

kuusisto-altstaedt

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 23 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07c3r1b

Available until 23 June

What’s the music?

J.S.Bach – Two part inventions (c1720-23) interspersed with Widmann – Duos for violin and cello (2008) (24 minutes)

Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) (23 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below where available. Not all of the Widmann pieces have been recorded yet, but where possible good alternative versions have been used:

About the music

As the Wigmore Hall programme writer Gerald Larner notes, the combination of violin and cello is a surprisingly scarce one in classical music. There are hardly any recognised works for the pairing, the two most notable being duos by Ravel and Kodály, but just recently the German composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann (b1973) has shown real creativity in his 24 duos.

They make an ideal contrast with the Bach Inventions, which transcribe seamlessly from keyboard to violin and cello, the violin taking the right hand part and the cello the left. In doing so they bring out the counterpoint behind the music. Widmann’s pieces are more about instrumental colour, but they have melody too – and he enjoys sending up particular dance forms and such, especially when he includes a James Bond theme in the final piece!

Even a composer as accomplished as Ravel did not find the combination of violin and cello an easy one. He began the Sonata in 1920 as a tribute to Debussy, but did not finish it for another year and a half, distracted by a house move and fuelled by the need to give his music a new austerity. Despite the use of only two lines the composer’s flair for harmonic movement still comes through, though the piece does still sound impressively modern.

Performance verdict

A wholly enjoyable concert, thanks to the chemistry between two performers who clearly enjoy their craft. Pekka Kuusisto has always been a charismatic violinist but Nicolas Altstaedt more than matched him here, and because they were in close proximity on the Wigmore Hall stage it was easy to see them as one instrument rather than two.

The interpolation of Bach and Widmann was a clever one, because the music of the former was notable for clean lines and impeccably worked out counterpoint, while the latter concentrated on colours, feelings and dance forms. Moving between the two extremes was a constant source of musical stimulation, and was brilliantly performed – especially in the final Widmann piece, a real tour de force.

The Ravel was superb, helped by the ability of these performers to project while playing incredibly quietly. Because of this the slow movement was the most searching of the four emotionally, potentially a tribute to the departed Debussy. The faster movements were thrilling, showing Ravel’s close relationship with differing dance forms but also the many and varied ways in which he extracts instrumental colour.

The encore, Sibelius’ first published piece, was inspired in its simplicity.

What should I listen out for?

Bach / Widmann

1:38 Bach Invention no.1 in C – there is a beautiful simplicity about Bach’s writing as the violin takes what would have been the right hand of the keyboard, and the cello the left. The counterpoint (i.e. the intertwining of melodies between the instruments) is immaculate.

3:19 Widmann Duo no. XIV Capriccio­ – Widmann’s coloristic effects include snapped pizzicato (plucking) and sudden, jarring phrases, as though the instruments are having a bit of a bout.

5:06 Bach Invention no.4 in D minor­ – after the outbursts of the Widmann it is almost a surprise to return to the clean tonality of the Bach, but it works well – and again the cello part finds itself in exact imitation of the violin

6:10 Widmann Duo no. XVI Petit ballet mécanique (Pas de deux) – a short and shady duo this, with short phrases and implied moods that never fully establish themselves.

7:10 Bach Invention no.6 in E – again Bach’s simplicity is all that matters here. The key of E major makes for a nice, open sound as the strings play with little vibrato.

11:17 Widmann Duo no. XXII Lamento – here Widmann is casting his mind back to the Baroque period, and the strings play close together with no vibrato – a stark sound

13:48 Bach Invention no.8 in F – a much quicker invention that works well in its string arrangement, the rapid movement of Bach’s figures passed between the instruments

14:41 Widmann Duo no. XXI Valse bavaroise – an exaggerated form of pastiche from Widmann here, with scratchy discords and long notes flying between the instruments, not to mention some pretty outrageous glissando passages from the cello!

16:46 Bach Invention no.14 in B flat – a quieter, more reverential piece.

18:38 Widmann Duo no. XIII Vier Strophen vom Heimweh – another slow Widmann piece, using a lot of double stopping so that it sounds more like a string quartet. Again the sound is cold, due to the use of mutes and the almost complete lack of vibrato.

20:48 Bach Invention no.15 in B minor – a solemn mood hangs over this invention, which again is played with very little vibrato – though the players do allow themselves a few liberties with variations of speed and volume.

22:31 Widmann Duo no. XXIV Toccatina all’inglese – a tour de force of virtuosity, this is the first of the Widmann pieces to be an obvious display vehicle for the two players, who rush up and down the fingerboard. There is an extended passage of plucking that briefly gives the music a Far Eastern feel, and there is a tune – where can you spot On her Majesty’s Secret Service?

Ravel

29:00 The first movement has shadowy beginnings, emerging as though from the mists – with the violin and cello very close together as they exchange musical thoughts. The clean timbres are a result of the players using harmonics – where the string is very lightly touched with the fingers on the left hand rather than pressed.

35:05 A faster movement that begins with both instruments plucking, and finds Ravel exploring a great many colours and combinations from this seemingly limited instrumental pairing. The sparse texture is a challenge for him, and sometimes he enhances it with scratched phrases and an almost complete lack of sustain, as in the passage from 36:10 onwards, with the cello’s furious chords.

39:08 The slow movement, a bleak utterance – and it is tempting to think it might owe its inspiration to the recently finished First World War. It takes a long time for the mood to rise above anything other than grim contemplation, but when it does there is a passionate piece of writing in the centre of the movement. Ravel, though is ultimately a positive composer, and this can be heard in the last phrases, which effectively shift the music from darkness to light.

46:04 The last movement reasserts a positive frame of mind with a vigorous jig, the two instruments playing with plenty of energy and rhythmic punch. The tune is catchy too! Ravel is the master of using instrumental effects for colour rather than for their own sake, and that is very much the case here, with harmonics, pizzicato, double stopping and different bowing techniques giving him a wide variety of shades. It is partly what makes this duo such compelling listening.

Encore

54:40 The fascinating encore is Water Droplets, the first published piece by the eight year old Jean Sibelius. It is incredibly simple – played entirely in pizzicato – but is all the more effective for that, as it paints such a vivid picture in its minute-long duration!

Further listening

Having mentioned the Kodály Duo for violin and cello it makes sense to include that as the extra listening here – on the same album as a substantial work for the combination by Erwin Schulhoff:

Meanwhile the video clip below gives an introduction to Jörg Widmann’s music for string quartet:

Hungarian passion

Hungarian passion – Alisa Weilerstein plays music for solo cello by Bach and Kodály

alisa-weilersteinAlisa Weilerstein (cello) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wmjx6

on the iPlayer until 7 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.5 (1724, 26 minutes)

Zoltán Kodály – Solo Cello Sonata (1915, 28 minutes)

What about the music?

Bach wrote six suites for the cello – or an instrument incredibly similar to it – and they have become some of his most popular works, suitable for students or performers alike. They are intensely private pieces but have a nice line in humour as well, especially in the faster sections, set to European dance forms of the time.

The first of Bach’s six suites was used in the film Master and Commander, on which more can be found here. The fifth is a sparse work and quite bleak at times. It is in six movements – with a Prelude, two faster dances (an Allemande (German) and a Courante (French), then a slow French one (Sarabande). Then we have a pair of lively Bourrées (French again) and a Gigue.

The Hungarian composer Kodály has written a much more modern sounding piece; even more so than its 1915 composition date suggests. Before performance the cellist is required to lower the lower of the four from a ‘C’ pitch to a ‘B’, darkening the colour considerably. Kodály uses a lot of dance music – like Bach – but this is much freer and has an improvised feel, the listener practically carried outside into the village by the directness of the writing.

Performance verdict

Despite a couple of lapses of tuning in the Bach, Alisa Weilerstein gives a carefully thought performance. In the Kodály she really comes into her own though, with plenty of fire and brimstone!

What should I listen out for?

Listen especially for these bits:

J.S. Bach

01:08 – the start of the Prelude, where Weilerstein plays very quietly with no vibrato*. The music is bare and at a funeral pace.

16:03 – the ‘Sarabande’ (a slow dance), which Weilerstein takes incredibly slowly. To me this sounded like an evocation of slowly falling tears.

Kodály

26:44 – the arresting start of the Kodály Sonata. A lot of music for just one instrument!

30:00 – the second main theme. More serene and songful.

37:27 – the start of the second movement. A broad low ‘B’ leads through a slow melody to

38:00, where a distant tune brings the strongest use yet of Hungarian folk music. While the right hand is using the bow, the left hand is plucking the open string alongside.

41:36 – a powerful outburst on the cello.

57:55 – the incredibly fraught and powerful run to the finish, ending with an emphatic final double-stopped** chord.

Want to hear more?

Bach – if you enjoyed this performance something equally dramatic can be found in the form of the St John Passion, a vivid telling of the Gospel

Kodály – the Hungarian’s grasp of orchestral colour can be fully appreciated in the Dances of Galanta

Glossary

*Vibrato – a way of adding extra expression to a piece of music, usually used by string players or singers. For string players it is controlled by the non-bowing arm, with a vibration applied to the finger pressed onto the string. For singers it is achieved through control of the voice.

**Double-stopped – playing more than one string at a time on the cello.