Wednesday 26 June 2019

The musical magic missing any Mozart

Mellow sounds: Steven Isserlis, the British cello virtuoso
Mellow sounds: Steven Isserlis, the British cello virtuoso

Some of the most beautiful music has been composed for the cello, the instrument often described as the one that most closely resembles the human voice.

In fact, if you take the lowest note that a great Russian basso profundo can sing and go all the way up to the top of the register where a coloratura soprano does her stuff, you'll have matched, more or less exactly, the cello's range.

Steven Isserlis, the British virtuoso, has written of how the instrument seems to become part of you, as you hug it close and coax out its mellow sounds.

Maybe that's no surprise, for it was only in the last hundred years or so that it became common to use an endpin to rest the cello on the floor. Prior to that, the practice was to hold it in position by actually clamping it between your legs.

The cello's ability to conjure emotion from the music has encouraged composers across the ages to explore its possibilities as the sole provider of the melodic experience.

Bach's six Suites for solo cello are towering achievements, exquisite to listen to, and an Everest of a challenge to include in a performer's repertoire.

The sonata - a piece to showcase a solo instrument with or without an accompanying part - is particularly suited to giving full rein to the cello's possibilities.

Beethoven was writing cello sonatas at the turn of the 18th century. Mendelssohn created two.

Chopin, who featured the piano in every one of his compositions, gave it the secondary part in a cello sonata.

Brahms brought his wonderful melodic lyricism to two, and he also wrote a sonata for violin that ended up being transcribed for the cello. Right into the 20th century, you'll find Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, not to mention the Russians Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Porkofiev, all writing cello sonatas. The instrument is also at the heart of some wonderful full-scale orchestral works.

Back in the Baroque, Vivaldi, who didn't play the cello, wrote more concertos for the instrument than anybody else before or since - 28 at the last count.

Joseph Haydn composed over 100 symphonies but he wasn't quite so prolific when it came to the cello. It's reckoned he wrote just five.

A little before Haydn, Georg Monn came up with the symphonic framework of four movements that the younger man would copper-fasten as the standard format for the big orchestral set-piece.

Monn also wrote a wonderful cello concerto, popular still thanks in no small measure to the fact that it has tended to be bracketed with the much loved Haydn No 1 on disc.

Antonin Dvorak's Romantic masterpiece - so good, his mentor Brahms wished he had come up with the idea - counts as one of the greatest achievements for the instrument.

Then there's Elgar's reflective work, composed in the summer that followed the conclusion of hostilities in World War I.

Schumann and Saint-Saëns, pianists both, created cello concertos that also deserve their place among the greats.

Interestingly, among all the music that Mozart wrote, there's nothing for the cello.

So much was written to order, pieces that he'd perform, or solo spectaculars for star players he knew. There doesn't appear to have been a cellist in his circle. Maybe that's why there's no cello concerto in his catalogue.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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