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Sunday January 14, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Christ and St. Stephen's Church, 120 West 69th Street, NYC

Tickets are $30 (open seating). Students under 25 with ID: free.

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Program

Egon Wellesz Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 31
J.S. Bach Suite III in C Major, BWV 1009
Joan Tower Six Meditations for Solo Cello (1971)
Eugène Ysaÿe Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 28
Zoltán Kodály Allegro molto vivace from Sonata, Op. 8, for Violoncello Solo

Artist

Robert La Rue was First Prize winner of the National Society of Arts and Letters Cello Competition, whose jury chairman was Mstislav Rostropovitch. A former member of the New England String Quartet and a current member of the New York CIty Opera Orchestra, he is the Music Director of the Arion Chamber Music series.


Notes on the Program

Egon Wellesz (1885-1974)

Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 31 (1920)

Egon Wellesz is chiefly remembered today for his part in helping to ‘crack the code’ of Byzantine liturgical music notation and the large body of his published scholarship relating to it, in recognition of which he received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in the early 1930s. Most of the rest of his important career as composer, teacher, and proponent of new music between the World Wars has been forgotten.

Born into a family of prosperous bourgeois Hungarian Jewish converts to Christianity, Wellesz abandoned the study of jurisprudence for musicology, developing a particular interest in early baroque opera later reflected in several of his own stage works. He became a university lecturer in music history in Vienna, was a co-founder of the International Society for Contemporary Music and was a collaborator and participant in Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances. He is credited as having been among the very first to introduce the music of Claude Debussy to Viennese audiences.

Although his earliest mature compositions initially came to the attention of Béla Bartók, who recommended Wellesz to his own publisher in Budapest, it was his long and somewhat complicated relationship with Schoenberg that did most to shape his later life as a composer. Wellesz is believed to have been Schoenberg’s first student in composition and was, for many years, mentioned along with Berg and Webern as his other most significant student (surviving letters from both these composers show that they regarded him in this way); his music enjoyed more widespread performance and acclaim than theirs until it was banned in the 1930s and he remained close friends with them until he was forced to flee Vienna at the time of Anschluss. Wellesz published an early, laudatory biography of Schoenberg that was instrumental in promoting that composer’s music throughout Europe and in the United States. And it was Wellesz who introduced Schoenberg to Josef Matthias Hauer, whose development of a twelve-tone serial technique of composition preceded Schoenberg’s (which he later insisted had been conceived entirely independently) by at least two years. Long afterwards, Wellesz was the subject of a lengthy public denunciation by Schoenberg -- who renounced his former pupil --which still reads rather oddly.

The Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 31 dates from early in the decade of Wellesz’s greatest success as a composer, a period when his string quartets were being performed throughout Europe by the Kolisch Quartet and several of his innovative operas and ballets were receiving near universal acclaim. It is a short work consisting of several sections played without pause, organized around a recurring, highly chromatic theme. The musical language is eclectic: always tonally centered; at times freely dissonant, at others adhering to the strictest contrapuntal traditions, suffused throughout with a suggestion of the medieval modalities at the center of Wellesz’s Byzantine studies.

J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Suite III in C major, BWV 1009

It is difficult to be certain but, in all likelihood, Bach’s C Major Suite for Solo Cello was performed complete in New York CIty for the first time on March 8th, 1904, when Pablo Casals presented it here at the Mendelssohn Hall on West 40th St. (torn down in 1912) as part of his first North American tour. Casals had only recently begun to introduce the suites, in their complete form, into his regular recital repertoire. There is a myth -- resembling the one about Mendelssohn’s own ‘rediscovery’ of Bach -- which holds that the cello suites were entirely forgotten and lost to both cellists and audiences until Casals single-handedly ‘rediscovered’ them by chance with his father in a second-hand music shop. This is demonstrably untrue, as they were widely available in several editions (of varying quality) in the latter half of the 19th century. Single movements -- especially the lighter bourrees, gavottes, and gigues -- were frequently excerpted and performed as morceaux or used as light encores. All serious cellists knew of them and most learned them, but they were perceived as dry, learned compositions and employed primarily as etudes or technical exercises. (Mendelssohn and Schumann both regarded them as entirely unperformable; Schumann devised piano accompaniments for them, intended as aids to performance, which were lost or destroyed.) What Casals achieved was to make manifest the beauty and expressive power of these unique works, in the process not only establishing them as a cornerstone of the cellist’s recital repertoire but also ushering in a flowering of interest among serious composers in the possibilities of the cello, alone, as a musical voice, which has vastly expanded the concert repertoire for the instrument and continues to the present day. Every other work on this evening’s program may be said to be a result of Casals’s innovation.

A certain aura of mystery surrounds the cello suites. There remains some lingering disagreement about the period of their composition (though 1717-1723 is broadly accepted as the likely period). There is also not much absolute agreement about the nature of the instrument on which they were intended to be played (the sixth suite was written for a small, five-stringed cello with an added e-string that could be held on the shoulder like a violin or viola; the remaining suites may have been intended for a four-stringed relative of this, nowadays referred to as the ‘violoncello da spalla’; at the time Bach wrote these pieces, the modern, standard notion of ‘the cello’ was still solidifying). The fact that no manuscript copy has ever been found in Bach’s own hand (with the partial exception of a version of the fifth suite, for lute) has tempted a few scholars to suggest that some or all of the suites were not written by Bach at all. (In recent years the popular alternate candidate for their authorship has been Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena: the copy generally regarded as most reliable -- though it is still remarkably sloppy -- is in her hand.) Additionally, there was virtually no precedent for works for solo cello, and none whatever with which Bach would have been likely to be acquainted.

The C Major lies at the midpoint of an arc of development in the cello suites; they grow steadily in expressive range, length, complexity, and technical difficulty. At the same time, all six conform to essentially the same plan, which was Bach’s unvarying one for his instrumental suites (as distinct from sonatas or partitas): a lengthy Prelude in a free style suggestive of improvisation (except for the 5th which features a briefer Prelude in the French Overture style attached to an eccentric three-voice fugue of which only one voice at a time is heard) followed by substantial Allemande and Courante movements; a shorter Sarabande, usually of meditative or mournful character; then paired dances (in the case of the C Major, Bourrees in contrasting major and minor keys) and a final Gigue. All of the dance movements are in a binary form save the paired dances which, by virtue of da capos, assume a ternary form that anticipates the minuet (or scherzo) and trio of a later era. The use of French designations (‘Courante’ as opposed to Italian ‘Corrente’ or ‘Gigue’ rather than ‘Giga’, for example) is thought to indicate the character of specific movements (in general, French being more stately and Italian more lively) but this is not always borne out by the nature of the writing. The prevailing mood (or affekt) of the C Major Suite is one of joy and exuberance, by turns majestic and rollicking.

Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Six Meditations for Solo Cello (1971)

The New Yorker magazine has identified Joan Tower as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time”, evidently intending nothing ironical through the inclusion of that somewhat old-fashioned modifier -- ‘woman composer’ -- with it’s faint echoes of ‘lady writer’, or ‘poetess’. As a member of the last generation, broadly speaking, in which it was remarkable to be female and a composer, she has often been hailed as a pioneer or trailblazer; as the recipient of a Grawemeyer Award, A Grammy Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Alfred I. Dupont Award, she has garnered more than her share of eminent prizes and other goodies in the modern-day composers’ professional sweepstakes. To that can be added having been a founding member of the DaCapo Chamber Players, one of the more venerable ensembles dedicated specifically to the performance of 20th (and now 21st) century music. DaCapo premiered many of Tower’s early chamber works along with those of numerous other distinguished composers.

Ms. Tower was born in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, spent part of her childhood and youth in Bolivia, and returned to the United States to study music and composition at Bennington College and Columbia University, where she completed a doctorate in composition in 1968. She joined the faculty of Bard College in 1972 and has remained there to this day, currently holding the position of Asher B. Edelman Professor of Music.

Six Meditations for Solo Cello is an early work. Fairly rigorously serialist throughout, it reflects the influence of Tower’s training at Columbia (she later abandoned twelve-tone composition and has more recently cited the music of Messiaen and George Crumb as inspirations for her own work). An initial ‘row’ takes shape from the outset by way of interval expansion and register displacement (distances between pitches becoming gradually wider and appearing in different octaves); by the end of the first meditation the same row can be heard in reverse order (its ‘retrograde’ or, to give it the more old-fashioned name, coined for its first use in medieval music, ‘cancrizans’). While the second meditation follows a presentation of pitches which is nearly identical to that of the first, they are significantly transformed by the introduction of a far broader palette of colors and articulations (including pizzicato, natural harmonics, flautando and non vibrato effects), more extreme dynamic differences and registral changes, and double-stopping (this movement is the only one of the six to make significant use of double-stops; otherwise, the work is essentially monodic). Each succeeding meditation takes up elements of those preceding to explore and build on; the third is perhaps the most ‘intervalic’, the fourth the busiest and most active, the fifth almost entirely about range and color. The concluding meditation recalls aspects of all the preceding ones, but the sense is one of transformation; there is no recapitulation or restatement.

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)

Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 28 (1923)

Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the most important instrumentalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and probably the single greatest violinist of his generation. Widely hailed during his own lifetime and after as the ‘King of the Violin’, he was himself the student of two great virtuosos of the instrument: Henryk Wieniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps. Admired for the cleanliness and accuracy of his technique (Pablo Casals said that, until Ysaÿe, he had never heard a violinist play really in tune) as much as the richness and strength of his sound and the deeply emotional expressivity and originality of his performances, he has been called ‘the first modern violinist’ -- although his use of rubato was the old-fashioned one favored by Chopin and Mozart. His early performances as concertmaster of ‘Bilse’s Band’ (a beer-hall orchestra in Berlin that was the precursor of the Berlin Philharmonic) were noticed enthusiastically by Franz Liszt, Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. Numerous composers esteemed his playing and dedicated works to him; perhaps the most significant of these are César Franck’s Violin Sonata (a wedding gift to Ysaÿe and his first wife, performed as part of the ceremony) and Ernest Chausson’s Poème. As leader of the Ysaÿe Quartet, he gave the premiere of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet. He toured internationally for a number of years; at one point he was offered -- and turned down -- the post of director of the New York Philharmonic; some twenty years later, in 1918, he accepted the directorship of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for four years before returning to Europe. Plagued by persistent health problems related to diabetes, he curtailed his performing career and devoted his remaining years to teaching and composition. He became in his turn one of the most important violin teachers of his era and had a significant influence on violin playing in the United States (chiefly through his student, Josef Gingold, who taught for many years at Indiana University, but also by way of Jascha Brodsky, another student of his who taught at the Curtis Institute of Music for over half a century). As a composer, Ysaÿe is chiefly remembered for his Six Sonatas, Op. 27, but he wrote numerous other works for violin (including several concertos), chamber works including two piano trios, two string trios, a string quartet and quintet and, at the end of his life, an opera, Pier li Houyeû, with libretto in his native Walloon language.

It is not widely known that Ysaÿe was an enthusiastic (and, as might be expected, able) amateur cellist, frequently taking that part in string quartet readings with friends. His interest in the instrument resulted in two works for cello and orchestra, as well as the single Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 28. Written during the same years as the six unaccompanied violin sonatas, it was composed simultaneously with the two best-known and most frequently performed of those: the ‘Obsession’ (No. 2) and the ‘Ballade’ (No. 3). It perhaps resembles the second sonata more overall, but its essentially ruminative and melancholic nature sets it apart from either of those more overtly virtuosic works. Though Ysaÿe was a friend and esteemed colleague of Casals, and would have been familiar with his performance of the Bach cello suites, this Sonata owes little direct inspiration to those pieces. The three movements are conceived as a whole, performed with brief pauses. The initial Grave presents the idée fixe of the piece and elaborates it in a freely-composed fashion. The following Intermezzo expands the descending 4th of the first movement’s theme, first into a tritone (in the bass of the initial pizzicato chords) and thereafter into a descending 5th (along with its equivalent, an ascending 4th). The tritone being the interval in-between a 4th and a 5th, this constitutes a little musical pun on Ysaÿe’s part. A new and distinct melodic idea emerges, still in minor but free of the first movement’s somber darkness. Next, a Recitativo -- highly chromatic and more dissonant than what has preceded it -- takes up and features the tritone of in the previous movement, and serves as an introduction to the Finale, which brings back the principal idea of the first movement, first in a somewhat fragmented form combined with elements of the Intermezzo theme, later adapted into the subject of a fugato section, and making its last, chromaticized appearance in a brief coda.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)

Allegro molto vivace from Sonata, Op.8, for Violoncello Solo (1915)

Zoltán Kodály is principally remembered today for the development of the Kodály Method of music instruction (more current in Europe than in the U.S. and primarily useful for vocal and choral training) and for his work in collecting, recording, cataloguing and analyzing the folk music of his native Hungary. He was an important influence on his compatriot, Béla Bartók, especially with respect to fostering and broadening Bartók’s own interest in the folk music of southeastern Europe; the two collaborated in tours of folk-song collecting and remained friends until the end of Bartók’s life. A handful of Kodály’s compositions remain in modern repertoire: the orchestral suite from his opera, Háry János, the Dances from Galánta, and the Psalmus Hungaricus are large-scale works that are still heard regularly. Possibly his two most frequently performed pieces are his Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, and the Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8.

Written in 1915 and premiered in 1918 by the Hungarian cellist, Jenő Kerpely, the sonata did not find publication until 1921. It is one of the first notable compositions for solo cello (other than etudes and caprices) since the time of Bach, preceded only by the three suites of Max Reger (published in 1915). Budapest was a center of virtuoso cello playing, owing to the presence at the conservatory there of David Popper (one of the great cellists of the later 19th century) so Kodály had been exposed to cello playing on a high technical level and knew the capabilities of the instrument. At the time he finished the piece, he declared that “in 25 years no cellist will be accepted who has not played it”. While it has taken far longer than twenty-five years, that can probably now be said to be broadly true, in the sense that few professional cellists nowadays complete their training without learning it. But of the great 20th century cellists, only János Starker made it a regular part of his concert repertoire (he recorded it four times and received a Grand Prix du Disque for his first recording) and several -- Casals, Feuermann, Piatigorsky, Rose, Rostropovitch – left it untouched.

This may be partly owing to the somewhat uneven quality of the writing. At just over 30 minutes in length, the complete sonata does not always repay inclusion on a recital program, requiring the very highest level of artistry in order to sustain interest. It is frequently performed with cuts. The first movement is perhaps the weakest overall; the second, while full of beautiful material, is somewhat diffuse and unfocused in structure. The third -- the Allegro Molto Vivace presented on today’s concert --  is the most coherently structured, the most direct in expression and the most virtuosic. An unusual and important feature of the sonata is its use of scordatura (‘altered tuning’) -- a common enough practice in baroque string writing (Bach’s 5th cello suite, for instance, calls for an A string tuned down a step to G) when tuning in perfect 5ths had not yet become universally standard. Kodály brings the lowest two strings of the cello down by a half-step each, to B and F# (with the result that three lower open strings of the instrument produce a B minor triad --  the key of the piece) extending the instrument’s range and facilitating the playing of rich chords.

Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2018