Explore The Music
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LISZT: Romance oubliée
Born Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811; died Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886
Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano
Composed in 1880; 4 minutes
Franz Liszt was known to compose quickly—and to return to his works, even after their publication, in order to refine and revise. Frequently he transformed his own music into transcriptions and adaptations for new instrumentations. Thus, the “Romance oubliée” began as a solo song for voice and piano, and Liszt later transcribed it for solo piano as well as for various string instruments with piano.
Liszt composed the original song in 1843 on a French poem by an acquaintance, Caroline von Pavloff, known as a poet and translator of Tolstoy’s works. The poem, “O pourquoi donc,” is a meditation on the plight of women who shed tears for lost love.
In 1848 Liszt adapted the song as a piano solo, and in 1880, the composer set it again in versions for violin and piano, viola and piano, and cello and piano. He adapted the expressive vocal material to suit the sonic textures of the instruments, re-titling the resulting piece, Romance oubliée, (Forgotten Romance). None of the versions of Romance oubliée demand virtuosic technique. Rather, Liszt gives the performers a medium for expressing the refined intimacy of their instruments. Cellists in particular have taken this lyrical transcription into their repertoire—not surprisingly, since their instrument is often likened in range and timbre to the human voice.
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LISZT: Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth
Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth for Cello and Piano
Published in 1883; 6 minutes
“Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth,” composed in 1841 and catalogued by Humphrey Searle as S. 274/1, subsequently underwent numerous revisions and arrangements. As was his habit, Liszt returned repeatedly to his own manuscript, both to refine the composition and to create new adaptations and transcriptions for other instruments. In this case, he reworked the original song at least eight different times for a variety of voices and instrumentations. Like his transcriptions of the song “O pourquoi donc,” Liszt’s various settings of “Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth” eschew virtuosic brilliance in favor of intense lyricism.
Liszt composed the solo song “Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth” (“The Cloister Cell in Nonnenwerth”) during a three-year retreat to the Rhine River island of that name in the Rhine River. From 1841 to 1843, he worked quietly in this secluded environment, accompanied by his lover Marie d’Agoult, and visited occasionally by his friend Felix Maria Andreas, Prince von Lichnowsky. During one of Lichnowsky’s stays on Nonnenwerth, an island saturated in historical—even mythological—lore, the prince wrote a lyric poem: a lament about a lost love whose absence from Nonnenwerth has caused great pain and regret to the poet.
Setting Lichnowsky’s text as a solo song, Liszt dedicated it (at least in the first version) to Marie, with whom he had had three children and from whom he would soon separate permanently. Marie wrote of the island, “Every day I see from my window ten or twelve ships passing up and down the river. Their smoke fades away in the branches of the larches and poplars. None of them stops! Nonnenwerth and its island recluses have no business with the rest of humanity!” The letter, the poem and the song all express the grief of lost love.
Liszt created this arrangement of the song for cello and piano and published it in 1883. In an exquisite cello aria supported by sensitive piano writing, Liszt retained the mood of the poem’s text, replacing sung words with the full depth and sonority of the cello, full-throated and heart-breaking.
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Busoni: Kultaselle, variations on a Finnish folksong
Born Empoli, Tuscany, April 1, 1866; died Berlin, July 27, 1924
Kultaselle, variations on a Finnish folksong for Cello and Piano
Composed ca. 1890; 10 minutes
The child of professional musicians, Ferruccio Busoni had been a musical prodigy, accomplished as both a pianist and a composer. The years 1888–90 saw the maturation of Busoni’s gifts and the expansion of his fame when he was appointed to the faculty of the new College of Music in Helsinki, Finland (the forerunner of today’s Sibelius Academy).
Upon arrival from Italy in September 1888, Busoni quickly found a social life among his artistic colleagues and the students in Helsinki. His circle grew to include the young composer Jean Sibelius and his friends Arvid, Eero and Armas Järnefelt. The young men called themselves the “Leskovites” (Lesko was the name of Busoni’s beloved dog), and they engaged in stimulating explorations of musical and artistic matters, particularly those concerning new music and national identity. For two years Busoni found himself steeped in the Swedish-Finnish-Germanic tug-of-war that was playing out in Helsinki’s music circles.
Busoni dedicated Kultaselle to his Moscow friend and colleague Professor Alfred von Glehn. The main theme of Kultaselle—the “Finnish folksong” of the subtitle—is also the principal musical theme of a piano piece that Busoni composed during his Helsinki years. It is a modest theme in C minor that melts imperceptibly into the first variation. The second variation, dramatic and bold, is followed by a lyrical song for cello with fluttering piano accompaniment. And so the variations progress, each in contrast to its preceding movement, with a forceful flourish as a conclusion to the piece.
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BRAHMS: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor
Born Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died Vienna, April 3, 1897
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38
Composed between 1862–65; 25 minutes
In summer 1862, Brahms began composing the E-minor Cello Sonata during a two-week working vacation at Bad Münster am Stein-Ebernburg. The sketches for the sonata lay untended until 1865, and when he took it up again, Brahms abandoned the Adagio movement that he had earlier written. He completed the three-movement work during his summer working vacation in 1865 and published it the following year. It was first performed in Leipzig on January 14, 1871.
Brahms dedicated his Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 38, to a Viennese friend, Josef Gänsbacher (1829–1911). Well connected in music circles of the city, Gänsbacher had helped Brahms obtain his appointment as music director of the Vienna Singakademie in 1863.
Son of the Austrian composer Johann Gänsbacher, Josef was an amateur cellist on the voice faculty of the Vienna Conservatory from 1863–1904. The Brahms biographer Alfred von Ehrmann wrote that Gänsbacher once played through “his” E-minor Sonata with the composer at the piano. Upon the occasion of their read-through, Gänsbacher remarked that he could not hear himself. Brahms answered him, “You’re a lucky fellow.” Apocryphal or not, the story suggests that Brahms’ dedication of the sonata was probably meant in honor of their personal friendship, which lasted through many years, rather than as a tribute to Gänsbacher’s cello talents.
Although lacking a real slow movement, the E-minor Sonata has excellent proportions. It opens with a tender cello voice accompanied by slowly pulsing piano chords. The simple beginning belies the grandeur of the 15-minute Allegro non troppo movement. The low cello tessitura of this movement contributes to the gravity of the mood. The second movement is a scherzo-minuet, with a strong folk-dance feel emphasized by its jaunty dotted-note rhythmic figures. It flirts with major keys in the trio section, but remains predominantly in the minor, as the dancers drift briefly into a reverie before returning to the dotted rhythms.
The piano announces the finale with an assertive statement of the main theme, which is taken up by the cello in fugal imitation. In this movement, the balance problems that disturbed Gänsbacher require refined attention from both players. Brahms weaves the contrapuntal materials into a dramatic sonata-allegro form that finishes in a blazing coda.
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BARTÓK: Rhapsody for Cello and Piano
Born Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died New York, September 26, 1945
Rhapsody for Cello and Piano
Composed between 1928-29; 10 minutes
In 1928, Béla Bartók presented new compositions for violin and piano to his two constant violin partners—and close friends—Josef Szigeti and Zoltán Székely. The Rhapsody No. 1, dedicated to Szigeti, and Rhapsody No. 2, dedicated to Székely, filled important repertoire slots, providing Bartók and his colleagues with new material for their demanding concert schedules. In addition to the material for his own use in violin/piano recitals, Bartók created an orchestration of the Rhapsody No. 1, which Szigeti premiered in November 1929 with the conductor Hermann Scherchen on the podium.
At the request of Pablo Casals, Bartók transcribed the First Rhapsody for cello and piano. Although the violin’s sparkling, scraping upper register might seem preferable for the Transylvanian and Romanian fiddle melodies that Bartók adapted for the Rhapsody, the cello’s mellow warmth adds its own substantial character to the quiet and subdued portions of the piece. By 1928, Bartók had been collecting folk music from throughout Central Europe and North Africa for a quarter-century. He brought a highly experienced ear to bear on his adaptations of the songs and dances, producing rhapsodic outpourings that capitalize on the specific character of the instrument—whether in its original version for violin, or in its transcription for cello.
Bartók cast the melodies of Rhapsody No. 1 in the traditional Hungarian dance form known as “Verbunkos.” The Verbunkos genre, which Bartók also used in such works as his 1938 Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Violin, “Contrasts,” as well as in his Second Violin Concerto, typically consists of two sections: slow (“lassú”) and lively (“friss”). The First Rhapsody’s “lassú” movement is constructed in an ABA form, plus coda; it features fiddle tunes built on Romany scales, dotted rhythms (typical of all lassú pieces) and droning piano accompaniment. The center section is a mournful melody well suited to the cello’s voice. The second movement, the “friss,” follows the coda with only a slight pause, moving into an ever-accelerating, virtuosic swirl of dance melodies.
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BRAHMS: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2, in F Major
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2, in F Major, Op. 99
Composed in 1886; 29 minutes
More than 20 years passed between the composition of Brahms’ first and second sonatas for cello and piano. Although the Sonata No. 2 was published without a dedication, Brahms wrote it under the inspiration of the German cellist Robert Hausmann (1852–1909), who for nearly 30 years was a member of Joseph Joachim’s string quartet. Brahms was therefore intimately familiar with Hausmann’s playing. In March 1885, Hausmann performed Brahms’ E-minor Cello Sonata in Vienna. Brahms was so taken by the performance that he immediately set to work composing a second cello sonata, this time with Hausmann in mind, and with the Hausmann sound in his ear.
Over the decades of his residency in Vienna, Brahms made a habit of spending his summers in a resort area where he might work in rural tranquility. For several years, he enjoyed the calm, yet invigorating, climate of Hofstetten, near Thun, Switzerland. There he spent the summer of 1886, completing the second cello sonata in August. In November, Hausmann gave the premiere performance of the piece in Vienna, and it was published the following year.
The opening flourish of piano tremolo chords and the cello’s bold announcement of the main theme set the entire work on course with grand ambitions. Although it is cast in F major, the first movement has the searching quality that we sometimes equate with minor keys, a tonality that Brahms explores in the center of the movement. The quiet tremolando figures in both instruments intensify the sense of mystery, and, played with more volume, they increase the drama.
The Adagio begins in the unexpected key of F-sharp major, in which the cello first enters on tiptoe, with low pizzicato tones under the piano’s bold chords. The cello then takes up the main theme, arioso, in a sweet shift of keys to F minor. Brahms continues to alternate the tender, arioso mood with a more assertive motif of piano chords laced with cello pizzicati. The two moods—tender and assertive—struggle for domination throughout the movement.
Just as quiet descends on the Adagio’s final measures, Brahms startles us with an explosion of youthful energy in the Allegro passionato third movement. This time the contemplative theme dominates the center of the movement, enclosed by the passions of the outer sections.
The sonata’s finale, a swiftly flowing rondo, once again calls for decorative pizzicato figures in the cello. Brahms turns these pizzicati into a prominent element in the final measures, which conclude the entire sonata with a “That’s that!” closing of the door.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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Acclaimed worldwide for his technique and musicianship, British cellist Steven Isserlis enjoys a distinguished career as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, programmer and educator. Highlights of Mr. Isserlis’ 2012/13 season include recitals in Milan, Washington, DC, Chicago, Cleveland, Budapest, London, Tokyo, Singapore and São Paulo.
Next month, Mr. Isserlis will be featured in a “carte blanche” weekend at the Théâtre des Bouffes Nord in Paris, in a series entitled “Maestro and Friends.” Last month, he and pianist Connie Shih gave the world premiere of a cello sonata by a twelve-year-old Benjamin Britten at Wigmore Hall, in anticipation of Britten’s centennial.
Among Mr. Isserlis’ orchestral engagements this season, he will direct and perform with the Norwegian, Zurich and Stuttgart chamber orchestras, and he will be soloist with the St Luke’s, Mahler and St. Paul chamber orchestras, as well as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; the Philharmonia Orchestra; the Melbourne and Swedish Radio symphonies; the Singapore Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In the spring, he will return to Cornwall where he serves as artistic director of the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove.
Mr. Isserlis’ latest recordings are Lieux retrouvés on Hyperion, a recital disc with composer/pianist Thomas Adès that features music by Adès, Liszt, Fauré, Janáček and Kurtág; and, for BIS, Bloch’s Schelomo and Frank Bridge’s Oration, with the Deutsches Sinfonie Orchester under Hugh Wolff. His previous disc on BIS is revisions, a collection of arrangements for cello and chamber orchestra made for him. Other recent releases for Hyperion include the complete solo cello suites by Bach and an all-Schumann disc with Denes Várjon. Scheduled for release later this year is a recording of Dvořák’s cello concerto, coupled with Dvořák’s little-known early Concerto in A major, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Harding.
Mr. Isserlis will return to 92Y on Sunday, February 3, to give a Family Music concert with pianist Jeremy Denk. He has written two books for children about the lives of the great composers that have been translated into many languages. He has recorded a children’s CD for BIS with Stephen Hough and has written three musical stories for children with composer Anne Dudley, all premiered at 92Y.
The recipient of many honors, Mr. Isserlis was awarded a CBE in 1998 in recognition of his services to music, and in 2000, he received the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau. He plays the Marquis de Corberon (Nelsova) Stradivarius of 1726, kindly loaned to him by the Royal Academy of Music. His website is stevenisserlis.com.
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Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein has quickly proven to be one of today’s most intriguing young musicians. In January 2010, Mr. Gerstein was named the sixth recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award, given every four years to an exceptional pianist with the potential and passion for a major international career. He has since used his Gilmore prize to commission new works by Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea. Four months later, he was honored with a 2010 Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Highlights of Mr. Gerstein's 2012/13 season include subscription debuts with Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston, Toronto and Montreal symphonies and debuts with orchestras in Prague, Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. He is returning to the St. Louis and Indianapolis symphonies, and in London he is appearing with the Philharmonia Orchestra, at the Proms and in recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Mr. Gerstein made his 92Y debut in December 2007 in a recital with Steven Isserlis, and he made his 92Y recital debut last April in a program of music for the dance. His recent engagements include a three-week Rachmaninoff concerto cycle with the Houston Symphony and appearances with the Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Royal philharmonics; the Cleveland Orchestra; the Chicago, NHK (Japan), San Francisco and Vancouver symphonies; Orchestre National de Lyon and Dresden Staatskappelle. He has given recitals in Boston, London, Paris and Budapest, among many others. He made his Salzburg Festival debut playing with András Schiff, and he has also appeared at the Aspen, Blossom and Tanglewood festivals and the Verbier, Lucerne and Jerusalem chamber music festivals.
Named one of the ten best recordings of 2010 by The New York Times, Kirill Gerstein’s first recording—recital works by Schumann, Liszt and Oliver Knussen—was released in October 2010 by Myrios Classics. It was followed a year later by a duo recital disc with violist Tabea Zimmermann.
Born in 1979 in Voronezh, Russia, Mr. Gerstein studied classical music while teaching himself jazz by listening to his parents’ jazz record collection. He came to the US at 14 to study jazz piano as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He later decided to focus mainly on classical music and moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music. He was awarded First Prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, he received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award and he was chosen as Carnegie Hall’s “Rising Star” for the 2005/06 season. He is currently a professor of piano at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart. His website is kirillgerstein.com.
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