A cello recital with a difference from two maverick geniuses, displaying the fecundity of their collaboration. The world-famous cellist Steven Isserlis, one of the best-loved instrumentalists of today, joins forces with composer and pianist Thomas Adès, described by the New York Times as one of the most imposing figures in contemporary music.
This recording opens with three of Liszt’s arrangements for cello and piano—the dark plangency of Isserlis’s tone emphasizing their elegiac power. Janácek’s Pohádka (‘A Tale’) is based on a story with many magical elements, and it is this particular quality which Isserlis and Adès bring out in their aerial performance. The passionate ecstasy of Fauré’s Cello Sonata No 2 is deeply felt, and the elemental mysterious sadness of Kurtág’s miniatures leads the listener into the 21st century and to the ‘title track’ of this disc which Adès wrote for Isserlis himself. Lieux retrouvés is a characteristically thrilling tour de force, displaying influences from all the composers previously featured and many more. The writing for the cello reaches uncharted levels of difficulty. Isserlis in his thoughtful booklet notes describes it in pictorial terms of rivers and mountains—here’s Anthony Tommasini, again in the New York Times: ‘The rippling figures for piano and cello spin out in crazed, cyclic riffs; the crystalline piano harmonies sound as if the wind were rustling the chimes in the pagoda; the feisty, industrialized propulsive bursts in the finale.’
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At first glance, the pieces on this disc might seem to form a rather unexpected set of bedfellows. The names of Fauré and Kurtág, for instance, do not generally inhabit the same sentence. But there is a reason for this unusual state of affairs, which is that all of the composers on this album have been central to the musical development of Thomas Adčs, whose Lieux retrouvés receives its first recording here. So we decided, rather than limiting the programme to two or three composers as is usual on a recording these days, that we would present a whole recital programme of works leading up to Lieux retrouvés, as well as the piece itself. And rather than my flailing around trying to describe how each composer has influenced Mr Adčs, I thought it better to ask the man himself to provide brief explanations—which he has kindly done.
The only works here dating from before the twentieth century are three pieces by Liszt—but La lugubre gondola, at least, could easily belong to a far later era, being a prime example of Liszt’s desire to ‘hurl his lance into the infinite sphere of the future’. The composer’s arrangements for cello (or violin) of the other two pieces derive from early songs, transformed in these versions into the sparer language of Liszt’s late years. Romance oubliée, originally a song dating from 1843, was heavily revised in versions for piano solo and for violin, cello and viola (all with piano) in 1880. Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth first saw life as a mournful lament in which the singer, shutting himself off from the world in the cloister at Nonnenwerth, bewails his abandonment. The song evidently held strong personal resonances for Liszt—not only because he was tempted by the monastic life, but also because the island of Nonnenwerth was a favourite holiday destination where he spent some summers with his young children before the family split up for ever. The fact that over a period of some forty years he made several vocal adaptations of this piece, as well as four versions for solo piano, one for piano duet, and this arrangement for violin or cello and piano, attests to his fondness for the work. La lugubre gondola was also the product of deep personal emotion. Liszt wrote two versions, the first inspired (he later claimed) by a premonition of Wagner’s death in Venice in 1883, the second (on which the cello version is based) by the death itself. What tragic music! One can hear the dark water lapping mournfully on the shore, the cries of the black-clad gondoliers, the grief-stricken prayers of the mourners.
SI: I was surprised (and pleased) when you asked if we could play these Liszt pieces in the programme in which Lieux retrouvés was introduced. You have said that your intention in Lieux was that ‘the listener would in hearing the music of each section actually be as much present in each of the four places, as they are in the hall’. Was it this Proustian sense of lost places recreated that made the Liszt works such natural companions for Lieux?
TA: Absolutely. No other great composer gives such a haunting sense of time and place as Liszt. Especially when there is a cello there. One really feels the sense of elsewhere.
The germination of Janácek’s Pohádka was a long one. First performed in 1910 in a three-movement version, which its composer described as part of a projected longer work, it was revived in 1912, this time with four movements. When it was eventually published in 1923, however, it had again lost its last movement; this final version is the one we play here. The ‘tale’ of the title is based (loosely) on a story by the Russian poet V A Zhukovsky, catchily entitled ‘A Tale about Tsar Berendey, about his son Ivan the Tsarevich, about the Acumen of Immortal Kaschei and about the wise Tsarievna Maria, Kaschei’s Daughter’. In brief, as I understand it, the part of the story represented in Pohádka concerns the handsome Prince Ivan (initially conveyed by the cello in a dotted pizzicato motif—so appropriate that a noble, good-looking hero should be played by the cello), who falls in love with the beautiful Princess Maria. The only slight handicap to this otherwise ideal match is that her father is none other than Kaschei the Undead, King of the Underworld—perhaps not the ideal father-in-law for a young prince of good prospects. Nor does Kaschei consider Ivan the son-in-law of his dreams. In fact, for complicated reasons, he feels that he owns Ivan’s soul—you know how these Undead fathers-in-law are—and strongly objects to the match.
The dreamy opening of the first movement, apparently representing the magical lake at which Ivan and Maria meet, leads to a touching love-duet; but after that the urgency increases, culminating in a passage of violent syncopations as Kaschei chases the young lovers on horseback. The second movement also begins with a strong sense of magic. The young lovers have reached safety at the palace of a neighbouring Tsar; but alas, all is not well, since this Tsar and Tsarina are rather too taken with young Ivan, fancying him as the perfect match for their own daughter and putting a spell on him, causing him to fall in love with said daughter. Maria reacts just as any normal adolescent girl would under these circumstances: she turns into a blue flower. The good news is that this draws from Janácek (near the opening of the movement) some meltingly lyrical music. And then, more good news: someone has the presence of mind to summon a wise magician, who breaks the spell. One can hear Ivan’s recovery in the return of his initial dotted rhythm, now played arco (bowed) rather than pizzicato (plucked). To demonstrate his return to health, he shoots right up to a searing top B flat. Sometimes in performance I’ve wondered whether Ivan, to demonstrate his newly found vigour, climbs to the top of a tree, where he finds a rather desperate cat bawling at the top of its voice; but that probably isn’t the intended effect. In the last movement, Ivan and Maria have reached the sanctuary of Ivan’s parents’ palace, where they tell of their love and their adventures, celebrate, and live happily ever after—well, as happily as one can live in the key of G flat major.
SI: I know that you have always been especially enthusiastic about Janácek, and have often performed his music. There seems to be a strong correspondence between the opening of Pohádka and the opening of Lieux—both depicting water. What attracts you particularly?
TA: Janácek is unique and Pohádka is one of his most magical pieces. Every gesture has the potency of a story told to a child.
Gabriel Fauré’s second Cello Sonata was written towards the end of the composers life, in 1921. Already profoundly deaf for many years, he was becoming increasingly feeble—and yet managed, miraculously, to produce music pulsing with joyous, ecstatic energy. This energy is conveyed throughout the first movement by constant syncopations in the accompaniment, every beat (except one—full marks if you can spot it!) in the main body of the movement containing off-beat quavers which drive the soaring melodies to ever-greater heights. The slow movement, originally a funeral march written to commemorate the centenary of Napoleon’s death, was first composed for wind band; but it fits perfectly into this sonata. The noble opening lament is reminiscent of Faure’s famous Élégie for cello, Op 24; but the gentle major sections take us closer to the world of his Requiem. The last movement is euphoric; perhaps it can be seen, or heard, or felt as a celebration of the beauty of nature, with its panoply of wild storms, windswept leaves and gentle sunlight.
SI: I remember that when we first met, I was delighted to realize that we shared a passion for the music of Fauré, and in particular for the late works, with their constant ecstasy—as if the music never touches the ground. How does he do it?
TA: The late Fauré has a unique quality of inner illumination and rapture. This is achieved with a supreme technical ellipsis which informs every bar of the music.
Many of György Kurtág’s recent works (several of them, including all but the first of the sequence recorded here, enfolded into his series of pieces entitled Signs, Games and Messages) have been miniatures—if that is not a misleading term for works of such deep layers of meaning and significance. For Steven: In Memoriam Pauline Mara was his (much appreciated) response to the news of the death of my wife Pauline in 2010. As I told him when I worked on the piece, I cannot possibly think of the extra-musical associations as I play it; but its feelings of lament, of the relentlessness of fate and of consolatory prayer are universal.
Gérard de Nerval was a nineteenth-century French poet whose tragic life ended in suicide. Pilinszky’s poem of that name (rather literally translated here) is bleak:
A riverside which is not a riverside.
Kurtág’s response, while full of inner pain, is also tender, its chromatic falling sighs evoking a memory of the Sarabande of Bach’s fifth Suite. Only the final pizzicato chord evokes the ‘fiery pin in the head’.
The last two pieces in this group stray into the region of the barely audible; both call for the heaviest possible mute, softening the sound of the cello to an ethereal smoulder. They are formed from the simplest of musical materials, mostly descending scales—music reduced to its bare essentials.
In Schatten (Shadows) dark forms scurry away, almost indistinguishable from the stillness surrounding them; it is as if other shadows are crouching in the night, taking cover in the silence. The atmosphere evokes the ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘’Tis here!—’Tis here!—’Tis gone!’
Written in memory of the distinguished Hungarian musicologist Kroó György, In memoriam practically transcends sound. The simplest of slow descending scales seem to depict footsteps to—or within—another world; sometimes the traveller’s steps falter, as if he were finding his way in the darkness of night. The music is almost impersonal; only the three ‘gypsy’ intervals (augmented seconds) openly express a sense of loss. The rest is a luminous farewell, a last glimpse of one who has entered ‘The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns’.
SI: I know that Kurtág has been a major influence on you, and that your university thesis was devoted to his music. (I understand that you got a starred first for it—there, I’m boasting on your behalf!) You don’t seem to have taken his intense brevity as a model for most of your works, though. In fact, having worked extensively with both of you, it seems to me that your personalities are very different in almost every way. What are the similarities? Can you describe what you have learned from him?
TA: I knew and adored Kurtág’s music before I met him—it communicates so directly, which is rare in music from that generation. I understood from him that the way a note is played, or indeed written, is a matter of life or death.
Lieux retrouvés—what can one say about this extraordinary work? Not only can Adčs’s work as a whole not be categorized, even this piece cannot be pigeon-holed in any way. He takes influences from everywhere—from all the composers on this disc, from Offenbach, from jazz, from the French baroque, even from minimalism—and creates his own individual language within this one composition. The opening depicts the calm of still water—water that then muddies and swirls before again relaxing and expanding into a crashing wave. The second movement portrays mountaineers as well as mountains, their footsteps crunching on the paths. The movement functions as a scherzo, with a trio section representing particularly hardy climbers, yodelling as they trudge. I was a bit worried by the dramatic end of this movement, concerned that a mountaineer had fallen off the mountain; but I was reassured to learn that it represented merely the defiant planting of a flag. The slow movement takes us to a peaceful field at night, the animals at rest, their breath rising to heaven (rather riskily represented by the highest notes I’ve ever had to play lyrically). The finale is best described by its subtitle, ‘Cancan macabre’; all brilliant lights, flirtatious naughtiness and grotesque over-excitement. ‘A romp’, as the composer innocently described it before he dared send me the music …
SI: This piece is nothing short of fiendish! In purely technical terms, it is the hardest piece I have ever learned—especially the last movement. I’m sure you remember that at one point before the first performance I told you that I just couldn’t—and wouldn’t—play it. You gently replied that that was fine, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, and that someone else would have to give the first performance instead … at which point I determined that I would most definitely play it! (And have done so at every opportunity since.) Now, I know that you plan to have a cello burned onstage in your forthcoming opera; but am I to take it that the reason for these mind-and-body-boggling demands is not actually that you hate cellos or cellists, but rather that you love to stretch the capabilities of the instruments for which you write? I really don’t think that the cello part could be played on any other instrument (even if I did suggest that you transcribe it for violin, but an octave lower); it’s just that you are demanding things from the cello that no one has ever demanded before. What qualities particularly attract you to the cello? And is it OK to describe your music in the simple pictorial terms that I have used in my note above?
TA I don’t know what to say! It’s all true. I don’t know why it is that the cello of all instruments makes one dream of Elsewhere when one hears it. Perhaps because the colours are so rich and wide-ranging, one can dream and find oneself in a different place. I believe that music is a vehicle that can carry you from where you are to a different place.
Steven Isserlis © 2012