Fantasia: Works for Solo Cello
Jonathan Swensen offers a fresh take on lesser-known works for solo cello for his stunning debut album, Fantasia. Alongside the Kodály sonata sits the seldom-heard Khachaturian Sonata-Fantasie for Solo Cello, plus a newly commissioned work by Danish composer Bent Sørensen, Farewell-Fantasia.
Swensen comments: "My goal with this album was to create the illusion that the music was being played for the first time: a fresh take, what one might call a 'creation of sound in the moment'. It is only when I am playing that I truly feel music. The fact that it was written many years ago does not change that the music is happening now, in this moment, when the audience hears it. In my opinion, this is what makes music amazing. Works that stand the test of time do so because they will always remain fresh to interpretation, and the moment they are played, they become once again fresh, something that is happening right now, a story in need of being told in a different way which we haven't heard yet. This is the magic of music."
Swensen won the 2019 Windsor Festival International String Competition, his prize for winning included the recording of this brilliant debut album as part of the Windsor Festival's ongoing relationship with Champs Hill Records. He is the recipient of the 2022 Avery Fisher Career Grant and also the winner of the 2018 Khachaturian International Cello Competition. In his native Denmark, Swensen was also a recipient of the Musikanmelderringens Artist Prize in 2020, the Jacob Gades Scholarship in 2019, the Léonie Sonning Talent Prize in 2017 and the first prize winner at the Danish String Competition in 2016.
Swensen has performed with orchestras including the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, the Copenhagen Philharmonic, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, the NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra, and Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música. He also performs at festivals in Denmark and further afield, including the Tivoli Festival, the Copenhagen Summer Festival, the Hindsgavl Summer Festival and the Usedomer Musikfestival.
- Sleeve Notes
The cello as an impassioned solo voice dates back at least to the six cello suites composed by JS Bach in the early decades of the 18th century – or, perhaps more precisely, as they were first widely revived and propagated early in the 20th century by the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals (1876–1973). The cello’s singing qualities had already been revealed by a previous generation of cellists – most notably the musician Tchaikovsky called ‘the tsar of cellists’, Karl Davydov (1838–1889), whose pupils Hanuš Wihan and Carl Fuchs in turn inspired such great masterpieces as the concertos of Dvorák and Elgar (the latter’s being the work that first inspired Jonathan Swensen to take up the cello); and then there’s the great Bohemian cellist David Popper (1843–1913), whose pupils included Jenö Kerpely, for whom Kodály wrote his Solo Cello Sonata. What Casals so eloquently demonstrated in performing Bach’s Suites, though, was that the cello could truly speak entirely in its own right, with no support from orchestra or any other instrument. It is within that legacy that the works on this programme were created.
Kodály was the first to take up Bach’s gauntlet. Among the achievements of his own magnificent Solo Cello Sonata of 1915 is the way it elaborates on Bach’s use of folk music (each of Bach’s suites ending with a rustic gigue). In this respect, Kodály directly inspired such works as Khachaturian’s Sonata-Fantasy, and – to an extent – his pupil Ligeti’s early yet masterful Solo Cello Sonata, which appears first on the programme. Ligeti could hardly avoid the example of his former teacher’s work. Not only was he Kodály’s pupil at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, but he also owed his first professional position at that institution to the great Hungarian composer, who secured that post for him in 1950, a year after Ligeti’s graduation (Ligeti having in the meantime spent a year researching Hungarian folk music in Transylvania). Ligeti composed the two movements of what became his Cello Sonata, ‘Dialogo’ and ‘Capriccio’, respectively in 1948, while he was still a student, and in 1953 when he was a teacher at the Academy. ‘Dialogo’ was written for fellow student and cellist Annuss Virány, with whom he was secretly in love. Virány, unaware of his feelings, accepted his gift but never played it. Years later, when teaching at the Academy, Ligeti met a better-established cellist, Vera Dénes, who asked him to write a piece for her. To his earlier piece, he added a virtuosic ‘Capriccio’ movement to create his Sonata.
Ligeti himself described the first movement, ‘Dialogo’, as ‘an attempt to write a beautiful melody, with a typical Hungarian profile, but not a folksong... or only half, like in Bartók or in Kodály – actually, closer to Kodály’. From this melody, Ligeti constructed ‘a dialogue... like two people, a man and a woman, conversing’. In musical terms, the result might be described as like a deconstructed fugue: the melody is first heard played on the cello’s lowest string, then subsequently appears (following the conventions of a fugue) played a fifth higher – on the
next string up. The melody is later heard in ‘conversation’ with itself as, on the highest two strings, the two voices are heard hinting at a fugue-like texture. The movement is initiated then punctuated with pairs of pizzicato chords, the cellist shifting their hand position after each has been plucked to create a disconcerting, Bartók-like glissando to a different chord. At the same time, the movement has an improvisatory character, its few given bar lines merely marking the end of its sometimes quite extensive phrases.
The following ‘Capriccio’ presents a startling but effective contrast with its predecessor’s stately character – indeed, its title consciously references Paganini’s violin caprices which Ligeti had known as a child. That movement is in sonata form – so the preceding ‘Dialogo’ might be considered something of an extended prelude or introduction. Marked Presto con slancio (very fast with enthusiasm), and furthermore forte vigoroso (vigorously loud), the ‘Capriccio’ in contrast to the improvisatory first movement is in a relentless 3/8 tempo, only interrupted by a reminiscence of the ‘Dialogo’.
A more recent work, albeit by a composer some seven years older than Ligeti, is Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1976/1982). Dutilleux had already placed cellists in his debt with his richly atmospheric Cello Concerto, Tout un monde lointain..., written 1967–70 for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. A few years later, Rostropovich approached 12 composers, including Dutilleux, to write a piece for 1976 to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Swiss conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher. Dutilleux responded with what became the first movement of his Trois Strophes. Later, in 1982, Dutilleux added two movements to create the present three-movement work. Describing these pieces as ‘strophes’ – stanzas – evokes the idea of a poem in which certain rhymes are used.
An unusual feature of the work is Dutilleux’s use of scordatura – the cello’s strings being adjusted to a non-standard tuning to achieve certain chords as well as an enrichening of tone. Precedents for this had been set both by Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite, which requires the top A string being tuned down a tone to G, and more recently by Kodály in his Sonata for Solo Cello. Dutilleux follows Kodály’s example in retuning the two lowest strings – in Dutilleux’s case, the G to F sharp, and the bottom C string down to B flat. Closer to Bach’s example is Dutilleux’s use of the musical alphabet to spell out the name S-A-C-H-E-R (Bach having used a similar process to spell out his own name): this is rendered E flat (‘Es’), A, C, B, E, D (‘Re’). Dutilleux’s first ‘strophe’, Un poco indeciso (rather hesitant), is based largely on the S-A-C-H-E-R musical cipher, which – after several tentative presentations of the first few letters – appears in full when the cellist breaks into pizzicato. Towards the movement’s end, Dutilleux includes a ghostly quotation from the final three bars of the opening movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, a great masterpiece commissioned by Sacher back in 1937. Some contrast is provided by Dutilleux’s following two movements: a moody Andante sostenuto (steady and sustained), and the by turns moth-like and fleeting Vivace (lively).
The Danish composer Bent Sørensen is a creative figure very much of our own time: indeed, his Farewell-Fantasia, specifically written for Jonathan Swensen, was first performed on 14 August 2021, at the inaugural Schackenborg Music Festival in Denmark. A former pupil of Per Nørgård, Sørensen writes in a recognisably tonal, late-Romantic style – indeed, in the Farewell-Fantasia there are clear allusions to the world of Bach’s Cello Suites – though typically with off-key harmonic interjections and the use of glissandi, so creating a dream-like and unstable atmosphere. Bent Sørensen writes of his piece: ‘Farewell-Fantasia – my little piece for solo cello – is definitely a fantasia. It consists of small sections, small movements in one, and between the lines there seems to be traces of a non-existent Bach suite. I am still not sure what the “farewell” is all about: there is no specific farewell in the piece but maybe a certain general sadness. For me, the piece is even more a “welcome” than a “farewell”. A very nice welcome to work with the young, brilliant and dedicated cellist, Jonathan Swensen, to whom my piece is dedicated. It has been so inspiring to work with him, and even though music is not supposed to be understood, his playing made me feel what I wanted, and for me there is an unbroken line between my composing and his playing.’
Starting with a mournful, hooting harmonic, then contrasting deep cello notes with expressive fragments in higher tenor and soprano ranges, the Farewell- Fantasia’s nocturnal atmosphere is quickly established. Yet, with episodes of fleeting and furtive-sounding passagework played sul ponticello (where the cello’s strings are bowed very close to the bridge to create a slightly grating, silvery sound), the mood through much of the work is restive rather than restful. Gradually, though, as Bach’s spirit infuses the music, the far-flung registers of the cello converge, reaching an eloquent passage in the instrument’s ‘natural’ baritone range before it finally reaches repose on its lowest C string.
It is from that bottom C string that the next piece emerges – another farewell in the form of a fantasy, as presented by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s Sonata-Fantasy for Cello Solo. Composed near the end of his life, in 1974, this was the first of three solo sonatas he composed – its successors were the Sonata-Monologue for Solo Violin (1975) and the Sonata-Song for Viola (1976).
When Khachaturian first began his music studies in Moscow, having travelled there in 1921 from the Caucasian cultural melting pot that was Tiflis (today Tbilisi), his original first study had been cello: only a hand injury persuaded him to pursue composition instead. When still in his twenties, Khachaturian had written: ‘My aim in music is to show the melodic and rhythmical richness of Armenian music using European musical art... To make our music the property of all peoples. To borrow décor and brightness from French music (Debussy, Ravel), to borrow colours from Russian music, and polyphonic skill from the classics...’ Almost fifty years later, in his Sonata-Fantasy he seems to reflect on the crucial creative crossroads of that period of his life: or, at least, to reflect on the Armenian style and his relationship to it through the instrument he knew so well.
While we may occasionally hear echoes of such celebrated works of Khachaturian’s as the Violin Concerto (1940), the Sonata-Fantasy’s tone is far more introverted and reflective. Its slow, soft start, quite different from the exuberant style typical of his more populist works, encourages one to listen intently as the drama unfolds, gradually building to a lively dance-like episode. The change of mood heralded by the high-jigging harmonics (Allegro giocoso) perhaps recalls a similar moment of sweet folksiness in the slow movement of Prokofiev’s Second String Quartet – appropriately, if so, since Prokofiev in that work had also taken inspiration from Caucasian folk music, and furthermore had done much to encourage Khachaturian early in his career and to raise his profile outside the Soviet Union.
Zoltán Kodály’s superb Sonata for Solo Cello was created, notwithstanding the First World War, during a particularly productive period in his compositional career: besides the Solo Cello Sonata (1915), he composed his Duo for Violin and Cello (1914), his Second String Quartet (1916–18), and many songs, piano pieces and various instrumental compositions. Kodály wrote his Sonata for Jenö Kerpely – the cellist of the Valdbauer-Kerpely Quartet which had already championed Kodály’s work, as well as music by his friend and colleague Bartók. Kerpely gave the Sonata’s first performance in Budapest in 1918.
To accommodate the Sonata’s unusual key of B minor, the cello’s two lowest strings are retuned down a semitone – B and F sharp – giving the instrument a darker-hued tone. A bold statement opens the richly eventful and noble first movement which makes use of the cello’s many coloristic resources, such as sul ponticello, harmonics and of course the rich palette afforded by the retuning. The second movement initially contrasts a lugubrious idea in the cello’s bass register with a high, folk-inflected melody; this is contrasted with a lively con moto section. The finale begins with a grand restatement of the B minor chord with which the Sonata first opened, though this time introducing a simple folk theme which then undergoes a series of variations of astonishing virtuosity, evoking along the way various Hungarian folk instruments such as the cimbalom and bagpipes.
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