Thank you for joining me for this somewhat experimental and unorthodox program. The idea of doing a solo recital has been in my head for over a decade, but I don't think I ever fully understood what an undertaking it would be! A solo cello recital was a nearly unheard of concept in the early 20th century since from Bach Suites until the early 20th century there was almost nothing written for solo cello except etudes and pedagogical studies. But as Casals began to popularize the Bach Suites, composers began to take a fresh look at solo cello writing and there was suddenly an explosion in works written for solo cello, to the extent that one could easily program ten solo recitals such as tonight's. My teacher, Zara Nelsova, gave one of the very first fully solo cello recitals in 1942, as her New York Town Hall debut. Her recital featured the Reger 2nd Suite, the Bach 6th Suite and the Kodaly Solo Sonata, a nearly unheard test of stamina and musicianship at the time (I remember she told me she would prepare by playing through the whole program non-stop 3 times in a row!)
Today, solo cello recitals, while not common, are less rare, with the Kodaly Solo Sonata and Bach Suites serving as mainstays of the solo recital repertoire. However I had always wanted to program a recital that featured a collection of my favorite unusual and relatively un-played romantic works for solo cello. The challenge I set was to construct a recital of solo works without either the Kodaly or the Bach Suites (and also avoiding the more edgy, dissonant music that isn't my personal taste.) The six works heard tonight are all works that I believe in and am happy to present, though I will confess that these ended up being six of the hardest works I have played and programming them together as a group is possibly the most difficult thing I've ever undertaken! However, operating on the assumption that what doesn't kill me will make me stronger, I welcome you gladly to tonight's experiment!
Max Reger (1873-1916) was Germany's premiere organ composer in his day and following in the footsteps of Bach, he was also among the first major composers since Bach to write serious music for the solo cello. His set of three suites for solo cello, Op. 131c (1915), took their inspiration from the Bach Suites and his first Suite particularly parallels the first Bach Suite in it's G major tonality and steady pulse of 16th notes in the Prelude. The piece was written and dedicated to Julius Klengel, the teacher of Feuermann, and Feuermann programmed it often and recorded it. I remember Zara playing us Feuermann's recording of this Reger Suite at a party and wondering 'What in the world is that bizarre music?' but when I later learned the piece, I became enamored. Bach seen through the lens of Reger has its own oddly distinct charm.
Ernest Bloch's (1880- 1959) Suite is, like Reger's, the first of a set of three written towards the end of his life, in 1956. Nelsova had a very special relationship with Bloch. She spent several weeks living as his guest on the Oregon coast, studying his works and he chose her to record 'Schelomo' with him as well as several of his 'from Jewish Life' pieces. I remember his autographed photo in Zara's apartment inscribed 'to Madame Schelomo' and he told his colleagues “Zara Nelsova is my music”.
In an excerpt from an interview with Tim Janof, Nelsova discusses the inspiration for the Bloch suites: “We developed a great friendship over the years. Once I asked him if he would write an unaccompanied cello sonata? "Oh," he said, "I don't know ... how would I do that? Play me something." So I sat down and played him a little of the Kodaly solo sonata. "No, no, that's not my style." Then I played some of the Reger Second Suite. "No, no, that's not my style." Nothing would please him. Soon after -- I think I was in Europe at the time -- I received a letter from him saying that he was at work on an unaccompanied suite. He ended up sending me three suites, one at a time, the first two being dedicated to me. The third he meant to dedicate to me, but he sent it to me in Europe to edit and I didn't get it in time. He didn't hear from me so he assumed that I didn't like it. The work remains undedicated. All three suites are very beautiful, but I play the first one more than the others. In so much as this recital is a reflection of Zara and her pioneering solo recital, I chose to learn this work not just because of its haunting beauty, but also to commemorate their musical friendship.
I've been a fan of Miklós Rózsa ( 1907-1995) ever since I fell in love with Heifetz's recording of his violin concerto. Hungarian born and trained in Leipzig, Rózsa sought refuge in Hollywood during World War II and began working as a film composer. He is perhaps best known for scores such as Spellbound and Ben Hur, but he continued his 'double life' as a classical composer as well. My wife and I recorded his piano and cello concertos with the New Zealand Symphony in 1998 and I learned this Toccata capricciosa shortly after that. It was written 1979 and dedicated to the memory of Piatigorsky. Rózsa is famous for difficult string writing, but this piece is among the most challenging things I've ever played. Somewhat like boiling all the hard bits of the Kodaly into a frenetic 6 minutes! Nevertheless, I find it very compelling music. Rózsa had a unique voice that was neither modern nor old-fashioned, but simply his own.
The Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was best known in his day as a soloist and conductor (Pablo Casals said that before him, he had never heard a violin played in tune!) Amazingly, Ysaÿe was not only an excellent violinist and violist but also a very competent cellist, serving as cellist for readings with fellow virtuosi of Mozart and Beethoven quartets and the Arensky piano trio, among other works. The sonata for solo cello dates from the same period in 1923-24 as the more famous violin sonatas, and uses much similar harmonic language. Because of Ysaÿe's facility on the cello, he not only composed the part but also suggested fingerings. When I finally acquired the Henle edition that reproduced his fingerings, I was chagrined to find that some of them were better than my own choices... I find his rich, dark tonal language addictive.
Jean Sibelius' (1865-1957) primary instrument was also the violin, though he was an able pianist. Sibelius was to become one of the leading romantic nationalist composers and the most important Finnish composer His symphonies and violin concerto are heard in every major symphony's regular programs. The Theme and Variations, however, is a very early work written in 1887 for the composer's cellist brother, Christian. Although the work was never published and could be considered somewhat juvenile, it is significant not just because it shows the young Sibelius experimenting with the motivic development and virtuoso flourishes that would become integral to his mature works, but also because it is the first instance of a major composer writing for solo cello since Bach, more than 160 years prior. The music was only rediscovered in 1995, has still not been published, and is virtually impossible to find by any traditional means. Amazingly, after 8 years of searching, I found the music on Facebook, or rather from a 'Facebook friend!' Many thanks to the Swedish cellist Stefan Moberg, who was kind enough to email me the otherwise unobtainable music. Since the music is unpublished, it's impossible to know for with complete certainty, but there is every reason to believe that this performance marks the work's North American debut.
Gaspar Cassadó i Moreu (1897-1966), the only cellist composer represented on this evening's program, was a protege of the young Pablo Casals and had a distinguished career as a cellist, chamber musician and composer/arranger. Inspired by the Bach suites and no doubt by Casals, Cassadó's 1926 suite for solo cello brings a Spanish flair to the genre. Just as in the Bach Suites, the opening fantasy is followed by two dance-inspired movements, in this case a Sardena and a Jota. The opening movement also quotes both Kodaly's 1915 Sonata for Solo Cello and Casado's then composition teacher Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. This work became by far Cassadó's best known and most often performed composition, but ironically he didn't care for it and rarely performed it himself. History has yielded a different judgment.
Thanks again for joining me for this unusual evening. While it is the most difficult recital I've ever programmed, I hope that the qualities of these small gems will radiate through all the double and triple stopping! Tonight's program is dedicated with gratitude to Zara Nelsova, a magnificent cellist, remarkable human being and a continuing source of inspiration. Brinton