in: Reviews

March 1, 2010

Wheeler Cello Sonata in Gordon & Hodgkinson’s “Cellotica Vol. 2” at Brandeis

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For five years now, cellist Joshua Gordon and pianist Randall Hodgkinson have presented recitals under the auspices of Brandeis University, where Gordon teaches and is in residence as a member of the Lydian String Quartet. Their current installment at Slosberg Music Center on February 28 was billed as an eclectic mix, but notwithstanding the performances of Scott Wheeler’s cello sonata and the sonata of bicentennial birthday boy Frédéric Chopin, it turned out, as Gordon acknowledged, that the connecting thread of the program was distinctly French.

The program opened with a set of pieces by Charles Koechlin based on ancient Breton folklore—a set of songs without words, as it were. To judge by the “plot” synopses Gordon set out in his program notes, this set, six of 12 published and 20 composed, seems to focus on individuals’ relationship to persons or institutions in authority. By 1931, when the 64-year-old Koechlin set these mostly medieval tunes, the western world was in the Depression, and the composer had adopted a strongly leftist bias. This affected both his compositional choices in accordance with then-prevailing notions—a much simplified harmonic palette in which he “smudges” the tonal and modal base harmony with gentle dissonances, and his expressive emphasis — highlighting the rapacity and arrogance of the mighty and the nobility of the lowly. These works, which overall reflect the musical influence of Koechlin’s teacher and friend Fauré (about whom more later), are charming trifles—one quite epigrammatic, one as boisterous as a Klingon tea party, and the finale, the longest, a stolid cloth-cap hymn with organ-like double-stops. Gordon and Hodgkinson brought out the charm, wit and sincerity of these settings most effectively.

Your correspondent’s view, for what it’s worth, is that the cello sonata ought to be the American national métier: the singing tone and range, the lyric capacity and projection of the cello provides a real match to what seems most attractive to our sensibility, to the extent we have one. Yet there is only a tiny handful of great American cello sonatas: Barber, Carter, Bacon, Ornstein—and who else? Therefore, it  always piques interest to hear a new one from a top-tier composer. In this case it was the première of Scott Wheeler’s Spirit Geometry; as is à la mode these days, one has to fight past the title to find out what the work is. Mr. Wheeler helpfully subtitled it as a cello sonata, which we think is his first; it was commissioned for Gordon and Hodgkinson by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. The work is in four movements, each of which (as does the work as a whole) bears a title and epigram from the Pensées of Blaise Pascal; and two movements unobtrusively incorporate music by Pascal’s compatriot and contemporary Jean-Baptiste Lully. There’s your French Connection.

The cello part in the prologue is entirely in harmonics; in the succeeding scherzo the cello plays entirely pizzicato. In general, the sonata explores different ranges and performance modes, without at all appearing as a technical exercise. The opening theme, recalled in the third movement, apparently reminded Mr. Gordon of the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, but this listener heard in its spacious fourths and fifths more of an undulating theremin. The “sweet breezes” of the second movement (its title) come mostly from the piano in florid passagework that gradually, together with the ever-pizzicato cello, hardened and whipped up quite a gale by the end. The third movement is passionate and stretches to the extremes of register; the finale takes a long-breathed lyrical tune and intensifies it developmentally and rhythmically. One’s overall impression is that this is a very strong work that will survive and reward repeated hearing—we hope for a recording in the not-distant future. The performance by Gordon and Hodgkinson was admirable, and will only strengthen with further performance.

The unequal first half of the program ended with Fauré’s first cello sonata, written just before World War I and very against type for this composer—particularly in the first movement, which is jagged and motivically driven; even its “lyric” second theme is given edge by the restless whole-tone-inflected harmony. The slow movement, a real gem, is a sort of lullaby manqué, with a principal tune that wants to rest and a harmony that burns the midnight oil. The finale adopts a tentatively more hopeful posture—no bravura, but a quiet confidence. Would only that history had justified it! The performers were perfectly attuned to this work (as, indeed, they were to everything) and were entirely persuasive in parsing its psychological ambiguities.

The second half began and ended with a bang, consisting of one work: Chopin’s marvelous g minor sonata, practically his only late work not for solo piano. It is also, remarkably, under-performed (except in commemorative years like this), considering that it’s about the only cello sonata by a major composer, apart from Mendelssohn’s pair, between Beethoven and Brahms. It is also full-blooded mature Chopin, not, like the piano concertos and other multi-instrument works, indebted in any noticeable degree to the Galant style. In the opening movement the cello has to earn its top billing against the powerful piano part (a little better balance from the performers would have helped here, were they so minded). The scherzo, a devilish affair more in a rounded binary than true ternary form, gives way to a soulful and songful slow movement. This listener detects in the finale music of a more overtly Slavic character than even in Chopin’s Polish-dance piano works. In any event it comes to a rousing conclusion and earned deserved plaudits from the audience (and now from at least one reviewer) for the finesse and élan Messrs. Gordon and Hodgkinson brought to it.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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