Tingling strings at Futuna – Dean Major and Robert Ibell

Colours of Futuna Concert Series

Music for Violin and ‘Cello


Dean Major – violin

Robert Ibell – ‘cello

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori

Sunday 16th November, 2012

Josef Haydn, whom previous generations knew as “Papa”, was one of music’s great humorists. Of course, everybody knows the slow movement of the “Surprise” Symphony with its sudden fortissimo chord right at the end of a piano phrase – but most of his jokes are far more subtle. They’re more in the realms of the “musically unexpected” than in the “things-that-go-bump-in-the-night” kind of way – Haydn treats his listeners to unexpected pauses, outlandish key modulations, deliberately uncertain rhythmic figurations, and false endings to movements. Often they’re things that straightaway sound quirky or eccentric, but to audiences it’s sometimes not immediately apparent why.

This penchant for humour has probably worked against Haydn in some quarters – it’s said that the Emperor, Joseph II, among others was displeased at some instances of the “holy art” of music being debased by Haydn’s quirkiness, and that this attitude carried over to the composer being thought less highly of than either his friend Mozart or his pupil, Beethoven. Obviously, it’s a case where posterity has deemed cheerful irreverence a “lesser” sign of genius than either premature death or deafness.

I’m not sure how far the composer might have gone in terms of giving similarly quirky instructions to his performers, or whether, in some instances, editors or publishers “interpolated” tempo markings, based on what the music “looked like” on the page. At a recent Futuna Chapel concert given by violinist Dean Major and ‘cellist Robert Ibell, a Haydn Duo began the program – for Violin and ‘Cello in D, Hob.VI – the opening movement bearing the indication Adagio non molto.

The playing was immediate and engaging – not absolutely bang-on in intonation at the outset, but once the players (and our ears) got “the pitch of the hall” the sounds found their centres more readily and mellifluously. I thought the tempi as performed beautifully suited the music and its character, as we heard it. But was this flowing, walking-pace opening really an “adagio” – as Oscar Wilde would have said, of any kind whatever? It certainly was “non molto” – in fact so “non” as to be “not at all”! Was this the mischievous spirit of the composer at work, once again?

Whatever the tempo indications, we found ourselves thoroughly at one with what the players did throughout all three movements of the work – a robust, bucolic Allegro second movement featured many felicitous touches, including writing for the cello that brought out a very viola-ish voice (as happened also in the opening movement, where some of the lines rose above the violin’s). Then, the final movement’s Menuetto was a “theme-and variations”, with a wealth of inventive interplay between the instruments, the players again impressing with plenty of tonal and dynamic variation amid the bravura passages.

The first music I ever heard of Reinhold Glière’s was NOT the much-played “Russian Sailors’ Dance” from the composer’s ballet The Red Poppy,  but (via an elderly DGG mono LP from the Palmerston North Public Library – those were the days!), the epic Third Symphony, entitled “Ilya Muromets”, a symphonic celebration of a legendary Russian warrior, said to have lived around the twelfth century. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell described Glière as a composer who was able to work both in Tsarist and post-revolutionary Russia, writing music almost exclusively concerned with folk-lore at the outset of his career, and subsequently becoming a “People’s Artist”, producing works like the aforementioned “Red Poppy” ballet.

His “Eight Duets for Violin and ‘Cello Op.39” presented the pre-revolutionary composer in a more abstract mode, attractive character pieces bent on conveying a collection of moods and impressions, rather like a Baroque suite. Violinist and ‘cellist played five of the set’s eight pieces, beginning with a deep-throated, somewhat Schumannesque Prelude, in which the ‘cello took the melodic lead. A Haydn-ish Gavotte followed, elegant, but with a pesante-like Trio, the ‘cello’s drone-bass almost Bartokian, and emphasizing the more contrapuntal nature of the opening section when it returned – it received playing by turns cultured and rustic, as required!

A salon-like Cradle Song received a sinuous, beguilingly-played violin line accompanied by gentle ‘cello undulations, while an Intermezzo again showed a Schumannesque inclination, like one of the composer’s “Jean-Paul” characters from a Masked Ball – the players’ characterful and quixotic responses enlivened both the melody and its accompaniment. But the Scherzo which concluded the selection was the highlight – a boisterous Vivace, replete with syncopations, rather like a vigorous waltz, imbued with the élan of both musicians’ playing. The more salon-like Trio further enhanced the scherzo’s brilliant, attention-grabbing effect, leaving we listeners properly exhilarated at the end.

The concert’s “main course” was undoubtedly the final item, Ravel’s 1922 Sonata for Violin and ‘Cello. The musicians demonstrated some of the piece’s aspects to us at the beginning, such as the major/minor motif that recurs throughout the work. Ravel wrote the work as one of a number of similar tributes to Debussy. It was originally a single movement, but the composer took it up again within a year of completion, and expanded the work to four movements.

Ravel himself regarded the work as important, and not just because of its dedication to an illustrious and recently-departed colleague.  The piece, however, gave him a good deal of trouble – he referred to it as “this rascal of a duo” – and at one point he threw out the entire scherzo and replaced it with a freshly written one. When told by the first performers that the work was so difficult that no-one would play it except virtuosos, the composer replied, “Good – I shan’t be assassinated by amateurs!”

Beginning with the alternating major/minor motif on violin, the piece was rhythmically undulated into life, the cello taking over the haunting, urgent oscillations before the violin’s return, the two instruments sometimes weaving their lines in synchronization, and sometimes counterpointing their voices, at one point tightening the tempo excitingly, but then returning to the more circumspect pace of the opening – here, precise, incisive, and at the end, very tender.

The pizzicato second movement also opened with the same major-minor oscillations, the players enjoying the “marching” sequences where each instrument alternated between robust goose-stepping, and a long-breathed, trenchant theme, the latter almost a mocking commentary. The figurations tightened their interaction, and after a brief “wind-blown” sequence, dug into an arco version of the goose-stepping before throwing away a final pizzicato chord – all very vividly projected by these two players!

The third movement, Lento, was begun by a long-breathed ‘cello solo, one which the violin emulated, with its efforts “counterpointed” by the ‘cello – such eloquent playing! Ghostly octaves from the violin and a lament-like melody from the ‘cello were sounded and exchanged – the music pressed forward urgently, until momentum was exhausted, and the lines quietly replenished their breath, the music spare, sombre and inward, and  played with incredible concentration.

Then it was the finale’s turn “Vif avec entrain” (bright with gusto) indeed! The ‘cello began a kind of irregular dance pattern, joined by the violin – the opening dance was repeated, and a “square-dance” variant took its turn, its stamping creating sparks. What games the two played! – it was “anything you can do, I can do, too!” country, each goading the other to the point of checkmate! And we in the audience were pinging and ponging with the excitement of the exchanges between the two players!

It was as if we were being rewarded for surrendering up a golden afternoon, missed through being indoors – we were blessed in our turn with skilled and committed performances of an inspired and absorbing programme.

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