My cello teacher’s music room, despite its wide bay window, was a shadowy space. In two of its corners stood a huddle of cellos, in old, wooden cases or on stands, their shoulders gleaming in the twilight. In my memory its air is thick with the sounds of Bach, the smell of varnish and rosin, and mysterious names, Gigli, Hill, Montagana, Banks, Vuillaume, Sartory, Dodd – cello and bow-makers. Stories were told of the old Italian cello which had a plugged hole at the top of its back. I learnt it was once carried through town on a leather strap. It seemed extraordinary that this slim-waisted, elegant instrument with its curvaceous back of flaming maple, could have been made for such rough use.
In fact, the cello (or violon-cello, literally ‘small’ violone) began life in the mid-16th century as an outdoors instrument, providing a bass for dances and street music, a peasant cousin to the subtle, sophisticated viola da gamba (anyone who heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Suites at the BBC Proms in 2015 will know how well the instrument projects in a huge space). During the 17th and 18th centuries viol and cello vied for pre-eminence in the courts of Europe (viol consorts lingering on in Purcell’s England and the Paris of Louis XIV) until the robust Italian cello pushed ahead, gleefully embraced by Gabrielli, Vivaldi Bach and Boccherini.
In planning Cello Unwrapped, I knew I wanted to capture this moment of divergence, and so, in February, Fretwork’s Richards Boothby and Tunnicliffe, gambist and gambist-cellist, will reveal just how different the two voices are. Their programme charts a wary, competitive dance, culminating in the concord of Abel’s 18th century duets for cello and gamba. At this precise point in time, the cello itself wasn’t fixed in size or type, as we’ll discover when Christophe Coin comes to play Bach’s dazzling final suite on his five-string ‘piccolo’ cello, the first in the Bach through Time series.
My earliest memory of a cello is hearing it played by a teacher at school and being captivated by its tawny-golden resonance. Conversing with 30+ cellists while putting Cello Unwrapped together, that distinctive sound and the cello’s human qualities, came up over and over again: for them the cello was ‘huggable’, a friend, companion, with a sound that is undeniably romantic, lyrical, dark, melancholy, sexy, human and warm. Matthew Barley, who will be collaborating with Indian musicians, reminded me that the cello actually rests on the player’s heart. No wonder the connection is so profound.
Perhaps this is best experienced when a cellist plays alone, and we are drawn into its secret, polyphonic world: solo works by Gabrielli, Kodály, Bloch, Cassadó, Kurtág, Ligeti, Britten, Howard Skempton and Bryce Dessner will be performed in Cello Unwrapped. Significantly, the very first music to be heard in Hall One by Kings Place’s developer and CEO, Peter Millican, was a Bach solo cello suite. ‘It seemed to me,’ he writes, ‘that Hall One was designed for solo cello: if you close your eyes, it’s almost as if you are listening from inside the instrument.’
It’s a musical truism that the cello resembles a human voice, so we’ve turned this idea into a strand of vocal-cello concerts, Voice of the Soul. It includes gorgeous Russian romances with Joan Rodgers and Guy Johnston, a rare outing for Piatti’s 19th century arias for cello and soprano with Ailish Tynan, and Arvo Pärt’s dramatic scena L’abbé Agathon, for which Kate Royal will be joined by the fabulous cello octet Cellophony.
An important aspect of the cello’s history has been its role supporting voices: from those early marching bands to the world of the sacred cantata, the sombre Passions of Bach, to the birth of opera and its flamboyant Baroque incarnation, the lithe, inflected line of the cello has been – literally –a ‘continuo’ thread. Director David Watkin, who played on John Eliot Gardiner’s landmark Bach Cantata Pilgrimage project, will offer insights into the expressive art of continuo playing with young period instrument players, soprano Julia Doyle and cellist Alison McGillivray. As he says, ‘the cellist’s role is to… enhance the dynamic dimension of the bottom line of the manuscript, to respond as the emotional ‘left brain’ of the continuo organism.’
There’s something, too, about the cello’s ‘fundamental’ role down there on the bass which I believe informs the character of cellists: is it because they are laying down the harmonic foundations rather than pirouetting on the high wire? does that bring them together, a fellowship with a wider perspective, drivers not divas? Typically versatile cellist Adrian Brendel, who will play Beethoven Trios and in Joanna McGregor’s Tango Band, calls them ‘collaborative beasts’. There are no violin festivals, for example, but famous cello festivals, in Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Basel.
What defined the great cellists of the 20th century was their political courage and rugged individulaism: both Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich were dissidents, Casals spending his life in exile following the Spanish Civil War, Rostropovich sheltering Solzhenitsyn among other acts of subversion. Both these heroes transformed the repertoire, elevating the instrument to new heights. Casals was responsible for bringing Bach’s solo works back to the concert stage; Rostropovich inspired more than 200 new pieces, Prokofiev’s Sonata, Britten’s Solo Suites and Piazzolla’s Grand Tango are just some included in Cello Unwrapped.
Heroes and high-octane concert music aside (and we have plenty of both), I wanted Cello Unwrapped to throw a light on the broader cello map, and those cellists who’ve chosen different paths: Silicon Valley’s Zoe Keating, whose cello and lap-top event is proving so popular, Ayanna Witter-Johnson who started singing with cello in a Caribbean restaurant while she was a student, Californian Natalie Haas whose duo with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser produces pure sunshine, Lucy Railton’s duo with jazz pianist Kit Downes and Nadège Rochat, who brings a programme of smouldering Spanish music with guitarist Rafael Aguirre. Expect electronic transformations from composer-cellist Ernst Reijseger, strange celestial voices in Jonathan Harvey’s Lauds from Tenebrae choir and cellist Oliver Coates, and scintillating new sounds in Tim Gill’s Avant Cello programme, which takes us through the 20th century and up to the present day.
It’s all a long way from my teacher’s cello room, and the 11-year-old who first sat down on a wooden stool to play for her. The instrument has been a constant, if intermittently attended, companion through my life, though my fingers are nowhere near as practised (and calloused) as they should be, and it’s my daughter learning Bach on my cello now. In some part of every cellist there’s a nagging envy of the violin’s silvery projection: it’s seems to be so much faster and more brilliant. But, in the end, the cello is surely the most seductive, soulful and the most natural of all instruments to play. I’ll leave the last word to composer Ernst Bloch: ‘Why shouldn’t I use a voice vaster and deeper than any spoken language – the cello?’
Helen Wallace is Creative Consultant at Kings Place Music Foundation, and co-curator of Cello Unwrapped
Cello Unwrapped opens with Alban Gerhardt and Aurora Orchestra on 7 January 2017 at Kings Place, Hall One.
For full programme: www.kingsplace.co.uk/cello
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