Solo cellist Christopher Hutton in Wellington Chamber Music’s second 2017 concert

Christopher Hutton (cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

J S Bach: A Suite Sampler
Britten: Suite for solo cello No 1, Op 72
Reger: Suite No 1 in G minor, Op 131c
Bolcom: from Suite No 1 in C minor
Harbison: Suite for solo cello (1993)
Corigliano: Fancy on a Bach Air

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 28 May 2017, 3 pm

Though originally from Wellington, Christopher Hutton had most of his education in the United States, at Boston University, the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, the University of North Carolina and the University of Delaware, before becoming an associate professor at the Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

He has made previous tours for Chamber Music New Zealand and Wellington Chamber Music, recently as cellist in the Poinsett Piano Trio. This may be his first return visit as solo cellist.

Given the general unfamiliarity with most of the music exists for solo cello (apart from Bach), he put together an interesting, and generally engaging programme.

It began with a not unsuccessful ‘sampler’ of a movement from each of Bach’s six cello suites, arranged in the same pattern as Bach followed, thus: the Prelude from No 1, the Allemande from No 2, the Courante from No 3, and so on. Apart from those with perfect pitch, the mixture of keys (no two are the same – the Bourrées in E flat followed by the Gigue in D) presented no problem. In the cases of very familiar movements, there was merely the matter of hearing, as each ended, the next actual movement in your head.

Before each piece, Hutton spoke interestingly and fluently, and his confident, unhesitating manner carried into his playing, through the varied phases of the first Prelude as well as the Allemande and the brisk Courante. At times it felt a little too restless. The Sarabande (from Suite No 5), however, was given its due as a more meditative piece. And he struck a clear contrast between the two Bourrées from the E flat suite.

Britten’s cello suite, one of three dedicated to Rostropovich, ‘clearly echoes Bach’, as Hutton says, but in such a way as to rather puzzle an innocent listener, who is likely to be less musically gifted and sophisticated than Rostropovich. It’s one of those pieces that is ‘tonal’ but not necessarily enrapturing. But I am not a reliable observer; I’ve long loved the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and Gloriana, the War Requiem, the folk song arrangements, the piano and violin concertos; but some of the chamber music in particular, which some find ‘interesting’, I might find cold, obtuse, calculated, often cluttered with complexity.

However, Hutton gave it a splendidly idiomatic performance though perhaps it was one emphasising its rigour and intellectualism, driving it so fiercely that whatever lyricism and more simple beauty became a bit hard to discern.

Much more to my liking was Max Reger’s first suite; he, like Britten, wrote three cello suites paying homage to Bach. Forty years older than Britten, he lived just in time to avoid the serialist and other avant-garde pretensions, so his Bach emulations sounded much closer than Britten’s to their source; my notes even went so far as to ask: ‘Bach’s Seventh Suite?’

There were quite extrovert, even exhibitionist, passages but it was essentially musical. The Adagio middle movement was charming, with lengthy passages of double stopping, which made me wonder whether this was a candidate for extracting as solo, Bach-aria-type piece. There was an impressive fugal episode in the last movement which the soloist’s notes likened to Bach’s solo violin sonatas.

Three American composers, all born in 1938, followed. I’m more familiar with William Bolcom’s songs, which are very attractive, than his chamber and other music, but the three movements from his first cello suite had many agreeable features; it was in the Badinerie movement (Bach’s famous example is in the second orchestral suite) that Hutton displayed particular aplomb in handling its bravura character with confident mastery. And he captured the almost flippant spirit of the Alla sarabanda final movement splendidly.

Bolcom was born on the west coast; John Harbison was born in Massachusetts. Hutton’s notes remark that his suite for solo cello resembles Bach’s solo violin sonatas and indeed, here was another approachable American composer who successfully took Bach as a model. Less easy to discern was the influence of Britten’s cello fugues, as suggested by Hutton; the blustery Fuga-Burletta, second movement, rather suggested Bach to me. Again, the genial musicality and the engaging scraps of melody that seemed to evolve one to another; the sober Sarabanda, and the rhythmically riotous Giga avoided anything that might alienate a mainstream listener. The music was imaginative, spontaneous in feeling, elegantly composed; and persuasively played.

The last item was something of a playful offering, from the many-sided John Corigliano (best known I suppose as composer of The Ghosts of Versailles, for the Metropolitan Opera, New York). His piece was called Fancy on a Bach Air; in fact, the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations It was characterised by long-breathed melodic ideas as well as very large intervals that, strangely, taxed Hutton’s intonation ever-so-slightly. Yet it was splendidly played, a fine way to end this successful, generally not too challenging, though unusual recital.

Further programme material from Christopher Hutton

Christopher Hutton had supplied interesting backgound notes to Wellington Chamber Music for incorporation into their printed programme.  Space constraints prevented most of the text from being used.

They are reproduced below as they deal interestingly with each of the pieces played. I should add that I refrained from reading them till I had written my review in order not to be influenced by words not available to the audience on the day; naturally, there are certain things that do not perhaps line up with my own impressions of the music. So be it.

Lindis Taylor

Today’s program juxtaposes music from J.S. Bach’s much beloved Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello with music by later composers who were influenced or inspired by Bach’s music.

As hard as it may be to imagine, J.S. Bach was not widely known as a composer when he wrote his cello suites almost 300 years ago, and as famous as he is now, there is plenty we do not know about the genesis of this music. We do know they were written in Cöthen between 1717-1720. It is uncertain who exactly might have first performed them, but they may have been intended to impress his employer Prince Leopold who was an enthusiast of the Viola da Gamba. Bach surely never intended this music to be used for actual dancing but he knew that his contemporaries enjoyed dance music so much that dance styles were commonly integrated into instrumental music written purely for amusement.

This meant that Bach could readily draw upon firmly conventionalized styles with meters and figuration specific to each kind of dance. As such, each suite consists of an introductory prelude followed by a series of five dances, always appearing in the same order: Allemande (moderate-tempo in 4/4 time), Courante (quicker, in 3/4 time), Sarabande (slow and stately in 3/4, often with a particular emphasis on the second beat), and Gigue (fast, with triple rather than duple rhythmic subdivisions). Between the Sarabande and Gigue each suite has a pair of short dances called Galanteries: Minuets in the first and second suites (moderately quick, 3/4); Bourées in the third and fourth suites (quicker, in 3/4), and Gavottes in the fifth and sixth (relatively quick, in 4/4 time). All seven of these dance styles have their roots in courtly dances that had become standardized in France in the late seventeenth century, and although by 1720 the French court had moved on to newer dances, the older styles were still common in other countries.

Because a performance of all six suites lasts well over two hours, today’s program begins with a “Suite Sampler”, presenting one movement from each of Bach’s Suites, each in a different key. By combining movements from multiple suites one can get an impression of the musical affect of each suite and of the variety of different movements contained within, perhaps whetting listeners’ appetites to seek out the set of six suites as a whole. This set begins with the Prelude of the first, G major Suite, which is almost certainly the single most famous movement of solo cello music ever written. It is remarkably simple, a series of arpeggiated chords that modulate through a number of keys before settling on the dominant (fifth scale degree).

Resolution back to tonic is inevitable, but is withheld. The tension inherent in that delayed gratification builds until the chords of the opening measures return in a cathartic moment of rapture. This is followed by the usual series of dances with the contrasts between each style heightened by the different keys and character reflective of each suite: the introspective Allemande in D minor, the fleet-footed Courante from the sunny C-major suite, the melancholy and extraordinarily sparse Sarabande from the C minor suite, the playful Bourées from the otherwise grandiose E-flat Suite, wrapped up with the brilliant and thrilling Gigue of the D major suite.

Though the cello rose to prominence as a solo instrument in the nineteenth century and cellist-composers wrote for unaccompanied cello, this music has generally not become a part of the modern cellist’s canon. The first solo cello works to have attained the status as standard repertoire were three suites composed by Max Reger (1873-1916) almost two-hundred years after Bach’s suites. Though written in 1914, after Schoenberg’s early forays into atonality and Stravinsky’s landmark Rite of Spring, Reger’s suites are deeply rooted in the richly chromatic tonal harmonies of the Romantic era. Each of Reger’s suites is dedicated to a leading cellist of the day: Julius Klengel (1859-1933), Paul Grümmer (1879-1965), and Hugo Becker (1863-1941). These names are likely unfamiliar to general audiences, but are well-known to cellists as composers of etudes and other music, and editors of music including Bach’s suites – versions of which are still in print from each of these cellists!

The G-major Suite, Op. 131c No. 1, opens with a running sixteenth-note (semiquaver) figuration instantly recognizable as relating to Bach’s prelude in the same key. In Reger’s case, however, the range is greatly expanded, and the simplicity of Bach’s model gives way to much more extroverted virtuosity. This opening movement is followed by an Adagio that is not clearly based on any specific movement by Bach, but combines extended passages of double-stops (common to many of Bach’s Sarabande movements) with intricate, quickly-moving scales. Bach only wrote one movement for solo cello that one might call a fugue (in the prelude to the fifth suite), but he wrote movements titled “Fuga” in each of his three sonatas for solo violin. Writing a fugue for a solo instrument is a challenge, but in the finale of his suite Reger (like Bach before him) uses a relatively simple subject that permits the layering of the theme over (or under) other voices. While not the same as one of the four-part masterpieces of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a fugue for organ, the technique is remarkably effective.

Like Reger, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote three suites for solo cello, though in this case not as a set, but rather among a series of five works written between 1960 and 1974 for and dedicated to the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). The first suite was written in 1964 and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. Inspired by Rostropovich’s playing of Bach suites rather than Bach’s music itself, it still has movements that clearly echo Bach. Both the Canto which recurs in different guises throughout the Suite (much like the Promenade of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and the Lamento relate quite strongly to Bach’s Sarabande in C minor in the way they explore the dissonant interval of a half-step (semitone). The Fuga channels the contrapuntal writing of Bach’s fugues, and here Britten comes up with the ingenious idea of including silences in his theme which allows him more leeway in giving the impression of multiple voices (allowing voices in other registers to fill in the gaps).

Rather than imitate the typical kinds of dance movements found in a Baroque suite, the later movements are distinctly Britten. The serenade is played pizzicato throughout, with strings plucked by both the left and right hands. The sarcastic march (perhaps echoing Shostakovich, another composer who collaborated with Rostropovich) has trumpet and drum effects which gradually draw closer and then further away. The fifth movement, Bordone, alternates between higher, scurrying themes played with the bow contrasted with lower and slower notes plucked by the left hand, all layered with a sustained drone D. Later in the movement the quick motive dissolves into the drone itself which then accompanies a plaintive melody first above and then below. In the finale Moto perpetuo the scurrying theme of the Bordone is further developed, culminating in a return of the Canto refrain. The Canto that has been haunting the suite is finally exorcised and at the end of the movement the last note is a dyad of the dissonant half-step of F# and G which resolves to G alone as the open string rings longer. The piece is a real tour-de-force both of composition and as a showcase for the abundant talent of its dedicatee.

The remaining works on this program were all composed within a span of two years (1994-96), and coincidentally were all written by composers born in the same year (1938).

William Bolcom adapted his Solo Suite No. 1 in C minor from his score for Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass. Like most of Bolcom’s cello works, it was written for the cellist Norman Fischer who now teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The Prelude is a brusque and angular march with percussive effects. That contrasts greatly with the playful third-movement Badinerie. “Badinerie” is a relatively obscure French term that might best be translated to the more commonly used Italian term “scherzo” (joke), and is a title that Bach used in the finale of his second orchestral suite. The final movement of Bolcom’s suite, titled “Alla sarabanda” is a direct homage to Bach with a recomposed version of Bach’s C minor Sarabande
followed by a series of five increasingly technical variations, and followed by a reprise of the theme.

John Harbison’s Suite for Solo Cello is set in four movements, very much in the form of Bach’s Sonatas for solo violin (written around the same time as the cello suites). It begins with a rhapsodic, improvisatory Preludio followed by a Fuga-Burletta which is – as suggested by its title – a comic fugue. It has similarities to the fugues in first suites of both Britten (with its use of silences in the subject) and Reger (with voices layered into double- and later triple-stopped chords). The brief Sarabanda updates Bach’s Sarabandes with 20th-century harmonies, while the Giga (Gigue) finale is a rip-roaring moto-perpetuo inspired by some of Bach’s cello gigues (notably that of the fourth cello suite) and the fast finales of his violin sonatas and partitas.

John Corigliano’s “Fancy on a Bach Air” is an introspective single-movement piece inspired not by any cello music, but rather the Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harpsichord. It was written in memory of one Robert Goldberg who had commissioned a number of composers to write a series of variations for the 25th anniversary of his wedding to his wife Judy. The set of pieces was to be performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, but before the commission could be fulfilled Robert died of cancer leaving the variations to stand in memorium rather than their original, celebratory purpose. The long-breathed phrases of Bach’s original air are imitated here in long, legato lines, written without notated rhythms to suggest a sense of freedom. It seems an appropriate way to bring this program to a close.

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