Gramophone guest blog

Five cello masterpieces you absolutely must hear

Corinne MorrisMon 16th October 2017

Corinne Morris introduces five 'undiscovered' cello works

It depends on the teacher. For everyone, it depends on the teacher. History has handed down to us a canon of works that we are told are 'the greats'. But there are so many other, truly great pieces that history has tended to ignore, or ignored so far. Musicians must be the guides, playing these pieces in concert and on record, laying down different interpretations, helping not only to discover, but to reveal avenues of interpretation, and layers of meaning. But it’s down to the musicians to get into the habit of venturing off the tried and tested path and uncovering these works (and then to concert promoters allowing us more flexibility in our programming!) and so, we’re back to that eternal truth, it depends on the teacher.

Of my teachers, it was the inspiring Raphael Sommer who exposed me to the idea of regularly exploring unknown or forgotten repertoire. The moment that thought really clicked for me was when Raphael performed an early cello sonata by Hans Pfitzner - he played it in concert and then recorded it for BBC Radio 3, and I became fascinated by this colossal sonata, I listened to it over and over and discovered a composer I’d never heard of. It opened my mind and ears.

In the age of the internet and the age of recordings (and those two things converge, of course), we have so much access to information, we should be listening to as much as we can, we should be seeking out scores; all of this was much more difficult for previous generations. Today, if you know where to look, you can come across all sorts of interesting pieces. And if I can contribute to expanding the repertoire, I will be a very happy cellist and teacher!

Which is why I’m happy to share five great and little-known cello works, starting with one I’ve just recorded, for you to explore. And yes, I know I’ve already mentioned the Pfitzner (Cello Sonata in F sharp minor, Op 1, to be precise). That was a bonus.

 

Monn Cello Concerto

I discovered the concerto by Georg Monn, like almost anyone else who’s heard it before, through Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of it. It always seemed rather muted in comparison to what I imagine a concerto to be, especially in the Classical era, it’s very introverted and that was interesting. Also, I love the gorgeous key of G minor, and it suits the somewhat warm and restrained sound that Monn is clearly looking for.

Neither, I found, was Du Pré’s version quite authentic. She opted for a version by Schoenberg, who had decided to reharmonise passages. And players 50 year ago were performing Classical and Baroque music in a totally different way to now, when we try to get back to the spirit of the original style more. I think that Schoenberg’s more complex, enriched harmonies – he made the work sound more 19th century – suited Jackie’s playing. So I’ve gone back to an earlier published edition of the original score, with a few modest changes of my own.

It’s the kind of concerto which works particularly well on a recording or, for a live concert, in a smaller space. Mind you, I would say the same about the Haydn, with which I’ve paired the Monn on my new album. I would also add that audiences love the Monn concerto. The first time I played it in public, I wasn’t sure that it would do as well as a Haydn concerto, precisely because it lacks that virtuosic brilliance we’ve come to expect from the form. But it was extremely well-received; I was keen to talk to audience members about it afterwards, and they all found it fascinating and unusual. So we shouldn’t be quite so scared to programme these rare works – it can be done!

 

Godard Cello Sonata

A few years ago, I was looking into French music of the Belle Époque for a concert series I was curating around that time, and amidst all the expected Lalo, Saint-Saëns and Debussy, I came across the Cello Sonata by Benjamin Godard. It’s an amazing masterpiece and totally ignored by almost everyone. I believe there is only one professional recording (I’d love to make my own!). Yet here is this momentous work; it’s on a large-scale, full of a sense of detail (it really gives you a feeling for what must have been going on in the salons around that time, in early 20th-century Paris). In a sense it’s taking you through the other side of the Belle Époque, because for many people that movement is all about salon music, little gems and songs. There was, however, another side to the Belle Époque that was all about the grand scale and this sonata takes pride of place there. Below is a video of the first movement, from a concert I gave in North Yorkshire in 2015. And I’m excited to be performing this sonata again quite soon, at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on December 1 this year.  

 

Bargiel Adagio

This is a piece that was totally unknown until very recently. Woldemar Bargiel was the younger half-brother of Clara Schumann, and he was quite inspired I think by his august brother-in-law. It’s a short work, and when you hear it, well, you feel a sense of peace within. And you feel just the same after performing it – a serene, beautiful work. When I came back from my long-term injury a couple of years ago I put together a self-produced album, 'The Macedonian Sessions', and while much of it was taken up with very famous music, I was able to slip in the Bargiel (see the video of the recording session, below). So many people after that came out and told me how gorgeous they had found that piece, and what a great discovery it had been for them. 

It doesn’t get performed much, I suspect because at under 10 minutes it’s difficult to programme. You could put it after a concerto, but concert organisers tend to not like that kind of ‘filler’, and it’s slightly too long to use as an encore (and often not enough rehearsal time to be able to properly go over the encore with an orchestra). So it falls through the cracks. 

And yet… Bargiel is simply a wonderful composer for orchestra. He knows how to orchestrate, how to make the textures bloom. Coming back to his admiration for his brother-in-law, you do feel from this piece something Schumannesque in his thematic development. There is a kind of emotional transparency in Bargiel’s themes, nothing is hidden - alongside an awareness of horror in this world there is also unquestionable hope. Schumann’s music is similar, where no emotion is concealed, everything is on view. It’s the same with Bargiel – it all exists, there in the work. It just...is.

 

Myaskovsky Cello Sonata No 2

I do not understand why this absolute masterpiece is not viewed on the same level as the Shostakovich or Prokoviev sonatas, and performed just as often. It is one of the great cornerstones of the cello and piano repertoire, or should be. Not all of Myaskovsky’s music is this magnificent, and he was so prolific that’s not surprising – his First Cello Sonata is interesting but not much more. 

But the Cello Sonata No 2 is just incredible. It’s a whole unique sound world. You can just sense the times in which he was living, everything about his environment feels infused in his music. And it makes for a fascinating comparison with the Shostakovich. Both are gloomy in their way. But where his compatriot can have a harshness, Myaskovsky in this sonata has none of that, finding instead desperation, hope, and a sense of these enormous Russian landscapes in his big themes. In a way, Myaskovsky continues where Rachmaninov left off…The breathtaking finale is somehow like a race to life itself. I haven’t had an opportunity to play this publicly yet but I am really looking forward to one day doing so. It’s a very important work for me.

I’d also love to record it. I discovered it through a Rostropovich recording (it was dedicated to him) - he made two, and I listen to the live one and never mind about the little imperfections and mono sound! Slava, who took an interest in my career early on, was totally in his element in this music. A larger-than-life artist for a larger-than-life work.

 

Honegger Cello Concerto

Arthur Honegger is a composer who was rather forgotten for a while but whom I think is re-emerging. Maybe because his music is a mixture of assertiveness and muscularity, and at the same time a distinct sensitivity, which is perhaps mistaken for simplicity. I think that has taken a while to be properly understood and appreciated. And his Cello Concerto is very special.

I discovered this relatively short concerto as a student at the Conservatoire in Paris. I had got hold of a (still) rare recording of the concerto played by André Navarra, who had been the teacher of my teacher, so I got to hear about this recording. It was a live recording he made, in Paris, and it is just sublime. Rather as Rostropovich is ideally matched for the Myaskovsky, Navarra captures the essence of Honegger’s writing, the slight frailty and the contrasting boldness. This constant change of shifting sound worlds with fleeting moments is of course very difficult to capture for the performer. I think some leading cellists over the decades have shied away for that reason. And I think that some of the cellists who have recorded it (there aren’t that many recordings) have not always understood the meaning behind the notes. I think it is suited to cellists who have a wide sound palette and who are very versatile in their approach in creating sound. But so far I have not heard a version so satisfying as Navarra’s in his conception of the work. Paul Tortelier though, a very different kind of cellist, makes it work for him in his recording in a different way. Neither of those are on YouTube, so I’ve chosen a live recording by Rostropovich which I find very satisfying on many levels.

 

Corinne Morris’s new album, ‘Chrysalis’, featuring Cello Concertos by Haydn, Monn and works by Couperin played by Morris and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is out on Linn Records

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