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One of the most exciting and versatile British cellists of his generation, Guy Johnston sets out to celebrate the life of his three-hundred-year-old instrument and to find out more about its creator, David Tecchler.
Gjeilo Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium)
I perform regularly with the Choir at Easter and Christmas and recently performed Serenity by Ola Gjeilo as part of the BBC Carols from King’s broadcast. It was a memorable experience performing this deeply moving piece during the procession of the cross towards the altar. King’s College Chapel seemed to be the perfect place in which to realise Ola’s vision for the work—in his words: ‘I wanted to write a cappella music that has a symphonic, abundant feel. I love a warm, lush sound that can give a feeling of space and evocativeness, but still be intimate, somehow.’
Marble Hall, Hatfield House
Hatfield House has become a musical home for Tom Poster, Magnus Johnston and me since I founded the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival in 2012. We have given many performances together as part of the Festival, including the ‘Ghost’ trio in the Marble Hall the night before recording it. I feel that the spirit of that performance has been captured here.
Beethoven Piano Trio in D Major, Op 70, No 1 ‘Ghost’
It is somewhat unimaginable today to be offered a piano trio in return for having someone to stay, but this is the story of the ‘Ghost’ trio. Beethoven dedicated one of his best-known works, published in 1809, to Countess Marie von Erdödy after staying in her Vienna home. Composed during a time in his life which produced many of his iconic works, the trio came to be known as the ‘Ghost’, undoubtedly thanks to the eerie slow movement.
Beethoven was also working on his ‘Macbeth’ opera around this time and some of the ideas—for example the opening theme of the slow movement—found their way into the trio. Following in the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart, the ‘Ghost’ exemplifies Beethoven’s willingness to introduce an equal partnership between the violin and cello on the one hand, and the piano on the other. The three instruments are present together right from the opening unison gesture, which is explored and developed throughout the movement. This energetic rhythmical motive is set in contrast with a beautiful lyrical theme revealed by the cello after an unexpected F-natural already in the fifth bar, stopping this initial outburst in its tracks, and which is then shared in dialogue with the violin and piano. The emotive slow movement is in a world of its own, questioning and searching, and is followed by a celebratory finale with a playfulness not always evident in Beethoven. It was a joy to collaborate with my brother, Magnus, whom I’ve always looked up to, and great friend, Tom, on this masterpiece.
London—Royal Academy of Music & Wigmore Hall
These two venues play a significant part in my musical life. I have the pleasure of teaching a small class of cellists at the Royal Academy of Music and have given many concerts at the Wigmore Hall over the years.
Barrière Sonata for two cellos in G major
Jean-Baptiste Barrière was a composer and cellist living during the first half of the 18th century when the cello was gaining popularity over the viol in France. This vibrant work showcases two cellos in dialogue in the celebratory key of G major.
I couldn't resist asking Sheku, whom I've known since he first started the cello, to join me for this performance. We have a great deal in common, not least the BBC Young Musician, won 16 years apart with the same Shostakovich concerto. Sheku has been studying at the Junior Academy for a number of years.
For this recording, Sheku was lent another Tecchler cello. Having two cellos made by the same luthier added a special dimension to this collaboration, as if two characters were reunited after all these years. We had great fun during the recording, not least by swapping parts in the repeats, and I'm delighted that Sheku agreed to come on this journey with me.
When I commissioned these three works, I asked the composers to think of the evolving role of the cellist over the last three centuries and to let their imaginations run wild. The results are three wonderful, unique responses to the same brief. We travel through the centuries with David Matthews’ work, into space with Charlotte Bray’s, and have been given ‘a gift’ by Mark Simpson.
Matthews Ein Celloleben
David chose to explore themes from works composed around each centenary year of the cello’s life. At the opening there is a rising gesture, right from the bottom to the top range of the cello, as if rising through history from bass line to treble. The themes take us on a musical journey through the centuries. It’s Ein Heldenleben with the cello as the hero.
I chose the title Ein Celloleben by analogy with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Within its four-minute duration the music encompasses the whole range of the cello from bottom C to a top high G, and passes through moods of contemplation, intense animation and light-hearted scherzando. Towards the end there are three quotations, played very quietly on harmonics: from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto; Beethoven’s E minor piano sonata; and Ravel’s piano trio. There is also a ghostly quotation of the opening of Beethoven’s cello sonata in C.
We recorded this celebratory work at Wigmore Hall, London, and developed some of the ideas during the process. You'll hear some left hand pizzicato during the quotations while I continue to play the upper line with the bow, which was a development made during the recording session itself.
Perseus is the result of Charlotte’s time spent as Composer in Residence at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. Perseus is a black hole, deep in space, and Charlotte conjures up a cosmic atmosphere that creates a remarkable feeling of otherworldliness. Charlotte even uses Tecchler’s name within the music, and I wonder if the three-note rhythmic motif was a subconscious response to the 300th anniversary.
Here's what Charlotte has to say:
I decided to take the cello maker’s name, David Tecchler, and translate the letters into a musical language to form the harmonic backbone of the work. The first section after the introduction, for example, follows the letters of his name: D-A-v-i-D t-E-C-C-H(B)-l-E-r.
The work also takes inspiration from the phenomenon known as a ‘supermassive black hole’. Captivating images have recently revealed that the black hole in the centre of the Perseus galaxy, a constellation in the northern hemisphere, dominates everything around it by propelling an extraordinary amount of radiation and energy out into the surrounding gas. The strange paradox is that an explosive black hole is the brightest source of life in the galaxy: greedy and luminous. I am fascinated and motivated creatively by this unseen and unknowable force.
Exploring various imaginary states, this abstract source found its way into the piece. The introduction contains three contrasting short musical kernels, each of which are explored and expanded-upon in the main body of the piece. The cello line is underpinned by a low piano drone and, in the second and third phrases, a high accented chord. This flows into a delicate section, sparsely written, as if the notes are distant stars in the galaxy far away. Growing out of this is a new section ‘White Heat, Luminous’. An intense rhythmic and repetitive bass line thunders away, punctuated by high stabbing clusters. The sustained glowing cello line leads to fast outbursts. A high cello melody sings throughout the third section, the lyrical centre of the piece. It feels intense and gritty above the powerful chordal piano accompaniment. The fourth and final section is deeply calm, a slow reflective end to the piece.
Simpson Un Regalo (A Gift)
Mark Simpson‘s Un Regalo is virtuosic and extreme, as if a hurricane is brewing and then subsides. The momentum of the piece builds and builds into a frenzy and disappears again into nothing. It uses the full range of the instrument and a variety of effects from glissandi to ponticello to create a unique soundworld.
I wanted to showcase not just Guy‘s brilliant musicianship but also the qualities of the instrument he plays and his innate understanding of it. The fantastic resonance of the instrument is what inspired the opening gesture, with the two lowest open strings dictating the opening chord, harmony and shape of the work.
The piece is in four sections. The first showcases lyrical extremes of the instrument, while the second is a relentless tarantella-like music with erratic outbursts leading to a third, broader expressive music where intense melodic gestures meld, shift, and fall upon each other. The last section is a quiet, distant recap of the opening which fades to nothing.
Arriving in Rome was such a wonderful moment after all the planning and recordings leading up to this point. Savouring the Italian language, the food, the people, and taking in the extraordinary historic places made an immense impression on me in the build-up to the final recording on this album. Prior to this point I had been given a unique opportunity to work on the Respighi with Sir Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House in anticipation of the recording, which would be with his orchestra and their assistant conductor, Carlo Rizzari. I couldn’t have been more excited to experience this extraordinary opportunity with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in their own concert hall. We heard Cecilia Bartoli singing a Mozart birthday celebration concert the evening before, which inspired me greatly the following day for this recording, during which our supporters joined us in the auditorium.
Respighi Adagio con variazioni
The young Respighi wrote his cello concerto in E minor in 1902, but it was left unpublished until he later returned to this enchanting middle movement, Adagio con variazioni, in 1921. This single movement therefore spans much of his life as a composer.
Respighi spent his early years playing violin, viola and piano, as well as teaching, arranging Baroque music and studying composition with Bruch in Berlin and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia. He moved to Rome in 1913 as a professor of composition, later being made director of the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in 1923. This was all during a time when Rome was the centre of orchestral life in Italy and where Respighi was to make his name with works including Fountains of Rome (1916) and later Pines of Rome (1924).
Adagio con variazioni is dedicated to Antonio Certani, an old Bolognese friend and chamber music colleague. I wished to include a work that captures some of the spirit of Rome on this recording and felt that it would be particularly fitting to conclude the journey with this enchanting offering.
Guy Johnston © 2017
I came to know about Tecchler cellos through my inspirational teacher, Steven Doane, who has played on one for most of his performing career. Many notable cellists, in fact, have played on these instruments over the centuries including Bernhard Romberg, Beatrice Harrison and Emanuel Feuermann.
The Tecchler cello on this recording came to me from a musician in Amsterdam in 2010, thanks to funding raised by the Stradivari Trust and the Royal Society of Musicians along with some private contributors. I am indebted to all these people who helped to acquire such a beautiful instrument, without whom none of this exciting journey would have been possible. It extends the cause for celebration on this recording!
David Tecchler c1666-c1747
David Tecchler is considered the most prominent of the Roman cello makers. Originally from the Bavarian town of Füssen on the northern slopes of the Alps, Tecchler journeyed to Rome via Venice and Cremona, undoubtedly familiarising himself with the great schools of making along the way. He arrived in Rome towards the end of the century, when he was in his late twenties.
There had long been a tradition of German makers travelling to Rome. Well over 200 luthiers from the 16th century onwards worked in Rome, often passing on their trade through the generations. Tecchler arrived when a new direction for luthiers was evolving: until then, lutes and guitars were the preferred instruments, but Tecchler seized on an evolving opportunity to create a tremendous output of violins, violas, basses and, primarily, cellos.
Via dei Leutari, the street of the luthiers, is based in the district of Parione where the makers worked for their parish Saint Lorenzo in Damaso. While laying the groundwork for this project, we were fortunate enough to get a foot in the door of number 16, where Tecchler worked for a time.
In the months that followed, we performed a small concert in Tecchler’s old workshop (now a garage), opposite where Rossini composed The Barber of Seville; this was followed by an evening concert in the historic Doria Pamphilj Palace thanks to the kind permission of Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj.
We invited around 50 supporters from the UK to some of these wonderful experiences to help fundraise for this recording. During the visit I stayed above the old workshop, preparing the Respighi for the recording and imagining what it must have been like with Tecchler working downstairs three centuries ago: quite a spiritual and uplifting experience.
In search of a cello
Meeting a new cello is, for me, always an exciting experience. As in any relationship, first impressions are important, and I was immediately drawn to this attractive-looking Tecchler.
During our ‘engagement’ period, it was important to play the instrument in lots of different circumstances: with piano, in a string ensemble, and in concerto with orchestra. It was important for me to sense how the instrument felt and responded in all these different situations. My own instincts were confirmed by positive feedback from trusted colleagues and friends, and I began to get a good sense that this Tecchler cello might really be ‘the one’.
It was, of course, a daunting process—even despite the successful fundraising for its acquisition. Nevertheless, nerves soon turned to joy, as I began to develop my inner voice with this special cello in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to give it back the next day.
The process of developing my sound with the instrument took some time initially. I would take the cello to Eckhard Kopfreiter, my ‘cello doctor’, and we would try minor tweaks: changing the bridge, trying different tailpieces and strings, and tweaking the post. It takes time to understand an instrument, but when it's right, you feel as one.
This Tecchler cello has both a wonderful depth and a clarity at the same time. It challenges me to search for the colours that I’m hearing in my ear. Our recording celebrates not only the tercentenary of the cello, but also its soul that continues to live on all these years later. I hope that you'll hear this shining through in the variety of performances on this recording.
Guy Johnston © 2017