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British solo cello music

Steven Isserlis (cello)
 
 
RECORD OF THE MONTH To be issued soon Available Friday 1 October 2021
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: August 2020
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Rachel Smith
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: 1 October 2021
Total duration: 78 minutes 18 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph of Steven Isserlis (detail) by Kevin Davis
 

If Britten’s Cello Suite No 3 is the undisputed masterpiece here, the other works are no less deserving of attention, Frank Merrick’s Suite in the eighteenth-century style being a particular delight. As ever, Steven Isserlis’s booklet notes offer fascinatingly personal perspectives on the composers and their music.

A ‘lockdown project’: how I hope that in the not-too-distant future someone will read that phrase and wonder what on earth it means. But it is an apt description of this album, which almost certainly would not have been made had it not been for those weeks of the COVID-19 virus during which we British people were told to fasten our bolts and stay firmly inside. At that point, for some reason, repertoire for solo cello suddenly became of great interest … And it was then that I pulled out from an old box Frank Merrick’s Suite in the eighteenth-century style, which, as far as I remember, I had not played since a concert to celebrate his centenary in 1986. Looking at it now after all those years, I found, to my surprise and delight, that I still loved the piece; and it was from there that the idea of this album started to take shape. Initially, if I’m honest, I saw rather little connection between the composers whose works are recorded here (particularly Merrick and Britten) other than country and century; but gradually, as I worked on the repertoire, I discovered that—utterly different, both personally and musically, though they all were (are)—they had more in common than I’d suspected.

To begin with Benjamin Britten, our national musical icon from after World War II until the time of his death: all of Britten’s mature works for cello were composed for his great friend Mstislav Rostropovich (although I’m sure I remember another friend of his, the French cellist Maurice Gendron, saying that he had an earlier piece for cello by Britten; there seems to be no trace of it, however, so perhaps I’m imagining things). The sequence began in 1961 with Britten’s Sonata for cello and piano in C, Op 65, a masterly, almost neo-classical work. This was followed in 1963 by the monumental, profound Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op 68 (seen by some today as Britten’s very greatest masterpiece), and then by two suites for solo cello (1964 and ’67 respectively). Finally came the two works presented here, both belonging firmly to Britten’s late period: his third suite (1971) and the short Sacher theme (1976, the year of Britten’s death).

Paul Sacher (1906-1999) was one of the most important patrons of composers in the history of music, commissioning works by, among many others, Bartók, Stravinsky, Martinů and Richard Strauss. For the occasion of Sacher’s seventieth birthday, in 1976, Rostropovich wanted to provide him with a very special gift. The Swiss composer, oboist and conductor Heinz Holliger suggested that Rostropovich should get a group of composers to write variations for solo cello based on the musical letters of Sacher’s name: E flat (S in German musical parlance), A, C, B natural (H in German), E and D (‘ré’ in French). Among those who contributed works to this scheme were Dutilleux, Lutosławski, Holliger himself, Henze, Berio, Boulez (who wrote Messagesquisse, for seven cellos) and Britten, who, while too frail to produce a whole set of variations, composed this ‘Tema’ as a basis for the other composers (though it’s not clear whether any of them actually used it for their own works). Britten convincingly belies his physical weakness with this wonderfully strong and characterful theme—a bold, uncompromising final (almost) flourish.

The history of his third suite is a more tormented one—in keeping with the music itself, based as it is on four Russian themes which range in mood from poignant to tragic. Written in early 1971, the suite had to wait until the end of 1974 for its premiere, for political reasons. In October 1970, Rostropovich had written an open letter protesting at the Soviet authorities’ treatment of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. From having been a favoured star of the Soviet system, allowed to travel all over the world, Rostropovich (or ‘Slava’—meaning ‘glory’—as he was known to his friends) was suddenly in disgrace, permitted to perform within the Soviet Union but barred from international travel, and humiliated at every turn. In April 1971, nevertheless, Britten somehow obtained permission to feature Rostropovich and Richter (who was also in a dicey position by that point) as soloists with the London Symphony Orchestra for a festival of British music in Moscow. He took the manuscript of the newly completed suite with him, and played it through on the piano at Rostropovich’s apartment to a select gathering made up of the Rostropoviches, the Shostakoviches, Peter Pears, Pears’s niece Sue Phipps, and the cellist and author Elizabeth Wilson (pupil of Rostropovich, and daughter of the then British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Sir Duncan Wilson). The piece was much lauded by those present—even though Britten felt that he’d played it too fast. The atmosphere soured somewhat, however, when Shostakovich remarked that he’d been brought up with a slightly different version of the last and most important of the four themes on which the suite is based, the Kontakion, an Orthodox chant for the dead (known in English as ‘Grant repose together with the saints’). Britten, having based several of the movements on this chant, was distraught, wondering aloud how he could possibly alter the music to incorporate the changes. Later, no doubt to his intense relief, he was assured by authorities within the Russian Orthodox Church that both versions were valid (as Shostakovich, feeling dreadful at having upset his friend, had immediately suggested), and he contented himself by adding an ossia offering Shostakovich’s version as an alternative where the theme is heard in full at the end of the suite. (I play the original.)

So what was in Britten’s mind as he composed this extraordinary music? It has been suggested that the dark, foreboding atmosphere of much of the suite is a reflection of his concern for Rostropovich’s dangerous situation. I’m sure that there is some truth to that—how could he not have been affected by those circumstances? But I feel also that there is a deeper, more universal inspiration here—that the suite offers us a profound meditation on death. Aside from the Kontakion, the other three themes are all taken from collections of folk-song arrangements by Tchaikovsky—the one entitled ‘Autumn’ being set for children’s voices; the words of all three are concerned, more or less, with mortality. Mournful song (‘Under the little apple tree’) and Street song (‘The grey eagle’) feature grieving lovers, while Autumn offers a doleful portrait of fallen leaves in the cold wind. For curiosity’s sake, we have added to this recording versions, for cello and piano, of the three Tchaikovsky settings, plus a multi-track version of ‘Grant repose’ in the adaptation used by Britten, which is to be found in The English Hymnal, edited by organist and composer Sir Walter Parratt (1841-1924—private organist to Queen Victoria, no less). For me, the interest of encountering these themes in earlier incarnations is heightened by observing the skill with which Britten has altered and adapted them for the purposes of his suite.

The work is composed in the ‘reverse variation’ form—i.e. the themes appearing after, not before, the variations—also used by Britten in two Dowland-inspired works: the Nocturnal for guitar, and Lachrymae for viola. The suite opens with the lowest note on the cello, an open C string, played pizzicato; this is sounded repeatedly through the ‘Introduzione’, underpinning a melodic line derived from ‘Grant repose’—as if one priest, and then two, were intoning a prayer for the departed, to the accompaniment of funeral bells. This is followed by a more energetic ‘Marcia’, based on ‘The grey eagle’, the bellicose march contrasted with elements of the chant. This movement then melts into a ‘Canto’ (based on ‘Under the little apple tree’), a series of gentle sighs, which is in turn succeeded by what appears to be a tribute to Bach’s first cello suite: a flowing ‘Barcarola’ derived from Autumn. From there the music becomes more complex, a ‘Dialogo’ (possibly suggested by Musorgsky’s ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ from Pictures from an exhibition?) between opposing aggressive fragments taken from ‘The grey eagle’, and calm pizzicato answers stemming from ‘Grant repose’. Halfway through this movement, it is as if the first voice resigns itself to the inescapable reality of death; from angry protests, the abrupt rhythmic patterns fade to soft floating, culminating in a gentle drift down to earth. An expressive ‘Fuga’, based on Autumn, follows, and then a total change of atmosphere: an eerie ‘Recitativo’ entitled ‘Fantastico’, in which strange, disjointed splinters of musical material are sounded briefly before flitting away into the shadows. (I have a question about a little phrase here, although I’m aware that I could easily be barking up the wrong shrub: one isolated figure consists of the notes E flat and A, a tritone. It seems to me that there is no obvious tritone in any of the themes; I wonder whether Britten might have been quoting instead the two musical letters of the name Slava: S—Es or E flat—and A? Maybe …) The spectral atmosphere carries over into the presto which follows, a scurrying ‘Moto perpetuo’ which brings to mind Chopin’s ‘wind howling through the graves’ in the last movement of his ‘funeral march’ sonata. Finally, the most substantial movement of all: an extensive ‘Passacaglia’, the main theme taken from ‘Grant repose’, firmly stating its cold purpose deep within the cavernous lower reaches of the cello, while the upper voice weeps and pleads in falling semitones. The intensity develops until the upper voice lets forth a melodious cry of anguish. And then—somehow making the whole meaning of the work clear in retrospect—we hear the four themes themselves, moving in their simplicity and expressive appeal. The third suite, like Britten’s even later third string quartet, takes us on a deeply affecting emotional and spiritual journey, bidding us a sombre farewell; it ends as it began—on the cello’s lowest, darkest note.

Rostropovich had been scheduled to perform the suite at the 1972 Aldeburgh Festival. Forced to cancel his trip just a few days before he had been supposed to travel (ironically, cruelly, Shostakovich was permitted to attend the festival), he wrote in desperation to Britten: ‘Ben, your suite is sheer genius. If they forbid me going abroad for a long time, please give me permission to play it for the first time in Moscow.’ This too was disallowed, however. Finally, in 1974, he was ignominiously dismissed by the Soviet authorities, and forced into exile; on 21 December that year he was at last able to give the premiere of the (now slightly revised) suite in the main concert hall of the Aldeburgh Festival, the Maltings at Snape. As can be imagined, it was a deeply emotional and memorable occasion—and I’m happy to report that I was there! I remember looking at Britten, sitting there, inscrutable, in the gloom of the box. In more recent years, I have performed the suite several times in that hall; each time, I look into the obscurity of the box and wonder whether Britten’s ghost might just be there …

If Britten was our national icon, William Walton was, by the time he composed the two pieces on this album, our elder statesman—albeit an absent one, living in Ischia. His short Theme for a prince, subtitled ‘Tema (per variazioni)’, bears a number of parallels with Britten’s Tema ‘Sacher’. Walton’s was written as part of an album of fourteen pieces composed in honour of Prince Charles’s twenty-first birthday, in 1969; most of them featured the prince’s chosen instruments, the cello and the trumpet. (John Gardner’s contribution to the collection required the performer to play the trumpet with his or her right hand, and the cello with the left hand, simultaneously—quite a challenge!) Like Britten, Walton seems to have intended his theme to provide material for sets of variations by the other composers; and again, it seems doubtful whether any of them used it as such. However, in 1999 I attempted to make amends by commissioning a piece from Robert Saxton based on this theme, and I’m glad I did; his Sonata on a theme of William Walton is a powerful work. The little theme does also stand by itself, however—as here, its sixteen bars of varying metre creating an effect of intimate spaciousness.

Walton’s Passacaglia was written—of course—for Rostropovich; has any player in history done as much to expand the repertoire of their instrument? The two men met, appropriately, at the Aldeburgh Festival. Walton reportedly asked Slava why he hadn’t played his concerto (one of the greatest of all cello concertos, incidentally). Slava’s response was typical: ‘You write me new work, and I play new work and old work.’ He didn’t keep his word about playing the old work, as far as I know, but he did play the Passacaglia—eventually. Although written in 1979/80—Tony Palmer’s moving film portrait of Walton, At the Haunted End of the Day, screened in 1981, shows the composer working on the piece, and playing the theme, very beautifully, on the piano—the Passacaglia did not receive its premiere until 1982. The delay this time was not because Rostropovich was stuck in the Soviet Union, but because he was too busy rushing around the rest of the world; there were even newspaper articles printed at the time in which Lady Walton complained that, having composed this work for Rostropovich, Walton couldn’t get it to him! But eventually Slava did play it—twice—at a concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 16 March 1982, less than two weeks before Walton’s eightieth birthday. Again, I was there; unlike the Britten suite, this work made little impression on me—nor did it appeal particularly when I received the music some time later. But—awful though it may be to contemplate—I was wrong! More recently, I decided to try again—and was (gradually) captivated. It is not a sensuous work, but it has a strength and directness that is truly, unusually satisfying. The theme—somewhat reminiscent of Theme for a prince in its wide intervals and open fourths—is succeeded by nine variations, Nos 1-6 growing in intensity, the seventh more lyrical (and featuring some very uncellistic left-hand pizzicato, some of which, I have to confess, I alter slightly). From that brief oasis, the energy resumes, the momentum building up to an exciting climax. Walton is reported to have considered the Passacaglia as unsuitable for public performance, better suited to a private gathering—but then he said the same of the Bach suites, apparently. I beg to differ on both counts.

And now: time to travel back a few centuries, or at least to the influence of music from those earlier centuries—though in fact we have already witnessed that influence in the works of Britten and Walton, not least in their shared predilection for the seventeenth-century form of the passacaglia (an enthusiasm persisting in the works of contemporary composers, such as Thomas Adès—in the second movement of his Lieux retrouvés for cello and piano, for instance). It is more overt, however, in the language of the remaining pieces by John Gardner and Frank Merrick. John Gardner was an interesting character, a prolific composer championed by Barbirolli and others, and director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and, most famously, Gustav Holst. My sister Rachel attended the school, and I always looked forward to Gardner’s energetic grunting as he conducted us, the audience, at the annual carol service. (Another brief personal connection, if indirect, arose a few years later, when his violin-playing daughter defended me against a bullying conductor at my first-ever rehearsal of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. My heroine.) The little nugget presented here, Gardner’s Coranto pizzicato, evidently inspired by Elizabethan lute music, forms the central movement of his Partita for solo cello, Op 98, from 1968. I played the Coranto in my teens and thereafter neglected it, until I decided to give it another go (guess when …); I’m glad I did—an enjoyable reunion.

It was as a teenager—or even earlier—that I first encountered Frank Merrick. From the age of ten, I studied at the rather grandly entitled International Cello Centre, occupying in fact just a tiny apartment in Ladbroke Grove, London, and presided over my by charismatic teacher Jane Cowan. I ended up going there six days a week for lessons, classes and the occasional evening event—a concert or lecture. A regular at these events was an old man with a distinguished crown of white hair who used to settle himself comfortably in a large armchair, fall fast asleep as the event began, and wake up at the end. This, I discovered, was Frank Merrick, pianist and composer, who had taught Jane’s husband Christopher at the Royal College of Music in (I presume) the 1920s. After some time, I got to know him a bit, gradually falling under his gentle spell; later, I started visiting him in his home—not far away from the Cello Centre—where we played sonatas together. Eventually, he invited me to record his own sonata for cello and piano with him; as I remember, he was 90, I was 17. The sonata was lovely; Frank was justifiably proud that a well-known cellist of his day had told him that the slow movement was as beautiful as Faure’s Élégie. I kept nagging the poor man, asking him incessantly whether he’d written anything else for the cello; no, was the reply, he didn’t think so. (He was the most absent-minded person I’ve ever met, which was why I kept asking; I remember calling once to arrange a time to visit him. We agreed on the following Tuesday, at 4pm. ‘Good’, he said slowly. ‘See you Friday at five’, and put down the phone, leaving me all atwitter. I thought it was because of his age; but Christopher Cowan said he’d been just the same when he’d studied with him. Mind on higher things, I suppose.) Then one day I arrived, and he was holding a piece of music on his lap. ‘Here’, he said, sounding surprised. ‘I just found this suite for solo cello in a box. I’ve no memory at all of having written it.’ I was thrilled, and started learning it forthwith.

Those visits to his house were also particularly enjoyable because he would regale me with stories about his fascinating life. Born in Bristol, he had shown early talent as both pianist and composer, and at the age of eleven had been taken to play to the legendary Paderewski, who suggested that the young Frank go to Vienna to play to the most famous piano teacher of the day, Leschetizky. Frank followed his advice and, amazingly, was accepted as a pupil by the master. In addition, he was taken to see the great Johann Strauss II, who was shown a waltz that the young boy had composed. ‘I see I have a rival’, remarked the composer of ‘The Blue Danube’. Not long thereafter, Frank recalled, he visited Brahms’s apartment, which, for legal reasons, had been kept exactly as it had been when Brahms had died there just two years earlier. (Later, he was to play Brahms’s D minor concerto under the baton of Theodor Müller-Reuter, who had conducted it for Brahms.) Returning to England after more than seventy lessons with Leschetizky—a rare honour, many pianists having been satisfied with just two or three—he made his debut with the Hallé under Hans Richter in 1902, and his Wigmore (then Bechstein) Hall recital debut a year later. (In 1953 and then 1973, he was to give recitals there to mark the anniversaries of that debut; I remember the latter occasion very well.) In 1908/09, Frank toured Australia with Dame Clara Butt. I don’t think he told me much about her—but I do recollect him saying that when he left for that tour, a few volumes of Scarlatti sonatas had been published, and that by the time he returned, several more volumes were available, much to his excitement. In 1910, he entered the Anton Rubinstein competition in St Petersburg as both pianist and composer; other competitors included Arthur Rubinstein (no relation) and my grandfather, Julius Isserlis. Frank was awarded a diploma for composition—a coveted distinction. Back in England, he married Hope Squire, a fellow pianist and composer, and radical suffragette, as well as a vegetarian (rare in those times); she proved to be a major influence on him. During World War I, he registered as a conscientious objector, and in 1917 was jailed for pacifism, with hard labour. (He liked to recall, pride mixed with sorrow, that in his absence his cat died of a broken heart.) Happily, on his release, he resumed his career with surprising speed. He had also become something of a musical radical by this time, introducing to Britain works by many contemporary British composers—including Bax, who dedicated his Paean to Frank—and others, including Debussy, Reger and Prokofiev, championing the sonatas of the latter. On one occasion, one of these sonatas had been poorly received; at the following recital, featuring the next sonata in the cycle, he silently declared to the audience: ‘I don’t care whether or not you like this!’ According to an amused Frank, an artist friend of his saw that thought on his face as he came onto the stage. His composing continued alongside his concert life and by now considerable teaching load. (He had learned, in prison, the international language of Esperanto—another radical cause—and wrote many songs in that language, as did Taneyev.) In preparation for the 1928 centenary of Schubert’s death, the Columbia Record Company enterprisingly announced a competition for the best completion of his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony; Frank produced two delicious movements, which won first prize and were duly recorded (twice, the second time in 1965). In 1937, he took up yet another cause: the music of John Field. In that year he also got married for the second time, to his student Sybil Case, Hope Squire having died after a long illness. In his later years, a Frank Merrick Society was set up by his friends and admirers in order to facilitate the recording of his compositions and performances; indeed, Frank continued playing almost until the end, one of his last projects being the recording of the cello sonata with me, to which I added the present suite (both tapes now lost—probably mercifully). That at least gave me the chance to play it for him, which was good—even though (as I recall) he slept soundly through the whole play-through, waking up only briefly to tell me not to use double dots in the sicilienne.

Since Frank had no memory of its composition, it’s impossible to date the suite exactly; but the title page announces that it was fingered and edited by the cellist W E Whitehouse, and since he died in 1935, we know at least that it was written before then. It is, I feel, an enchanting work, full of charm and invention. On seeing its title, Suite in the eighteenth-century style, one would immediately assume that it is a tribute to the Bach suites—and perhaps it is; but it’s worth remembering that the first complete recording of the suites, Casals’s immortal set, had not yet been made, so it’s quite possible that Frank didn’t know them particularly well. Certainly the opening ritornelle brings to mind Handelian grandeur rather than Bach; and if some of the other movements carry a suggestion of Bach’s seventh suite, it’s by no means a pale imitation. Each movement possesses its own strong character, ranging from the cheeky to the poignant; I am delighted to present the first (surviving!) recording of this long-hidden work.

And finally—against the Trade Descriptions Act, bringing this recording of ‘twentieth-century’ solo cello music into the twenty-first century (unless you believe that that century in fact began in 2001)—Thomas Adès’s Sola, which was written on a Saturday night in 2000. It might seem strange to go straight from Merrick’s Suite in the eighteenth-century style to a piece by Thomas Adès; but since Adès has described himself as ‘a Baroque composer living in the twenty-first century’, it makes sense. Sola was actually written in one night, as a response to his great cellist friend Zoë Martlew, who had announced that she couldn’t after all spend that evening with Thomas as planned, because she had to practise. In one of the more creative acts of remonstration in musical history, Thomas sat down, wrote this short piece and sent it to Zoë, giving her quite a surprise as it arrived through her fax machine. A series of chords, representing his reproving voice, fail to dissuade the cellist from playing her scales. The dispute is finally resolved, thankfully, in the form of a pizzicato C major cadence—all’s well that ends well.

Steven Isserlis © 2021

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