Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Recital, Dec 2

Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Recital

Debussy: Sonata No. 1 in D minor for Cello and Piano 

Brahms: Sonata No. 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 38

Rachmaninoff: Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 19

 

Debussy: Sonata No. 1 in D minor for Cello and Piano  

THE BACKSTORY It began as a grand plan for six sonatas “for various instruments,” with the final sonata featuring all of the instruments from the previous five. Claude Debussy (1862–1918) knew he didn’t have much time left. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1909, he underwent a grueling operation in 1915 that left him severely weakened and barely able to compose. “For the last three months I’ve been able to work again,” he wrote in October 1915. “I spent nearly a year unable to write music. . . after that I’ve almost had to re-learn it.”

Debussy died in 1918 with only three of the six sonatas completed—the first for cello and piano; the second for flute, viola, and harp; and the third for violin and piano. Despite his stature as a modernist’s modernist, Debussy had a strong antiquarian streak that was fully on display when he described the sonatas as being “in the ancient, flexible mould with none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas.” His ideals were the intimate and domestic sonatas of Haydn and Mozart, rather than the near-symphonic concert sonatas of Liszt and Brahms. Each sonata sports at least one movement cast in the three-part sonata-allegro form common to the Classical masters and used with varying degrees of skill by later generations. Old bottles, therefore, but in the Debussy Cello Sonata they contain both old wine and new. As an antiquarian, Debussy invokes the ancient church modes that preceded the familiar major and minor; as a modernist, he employs an avant-garde harmonic language that at times blurs the border between tonality and atonality.

THE MUSIC The first movement explores that old-new duality in full. The opening is cast in Aeolian mode, essentially minor without the usual nips and tucks to bring it into conformity with traditional harmonic pratice. Ravishingly beautiful yet enigmatic contrasting passages may be so chromatic as to negate any clear sense of key center, making the eventual return to a solid tonality all the more reassuring. In a marvelous nod to his predecessors, Debussy ends the movement with a picardy third, that time-honored practice of capping a minor-mode piece with a major chord.

The remainder of the sonata is cast as a single unit divided into two parts. The first-place Sérénade evokes a Spanish mood given its use of guitar-like pizzicatos in the cello and light staccatos in the piano, but in its quicksilver changes of mood and its unpredictability it exemplifies a feline quality that, while apparent throughout Debussy’s output, becomes considerably more prevalent in his later works. The Sérénade is filled with fascinating string effects in the cello: not only pizzicato, but also sliding glissandos, harmonics (in which the string is only partly stopped by the fingers, allowing some of the upper resonances of the note to sound), and even vibrato on pizzicato notes. All in all, the Sérénade bears a more-than-fleeting resemblance to the distilled pointillist idiom of Anton Webern—who may well have been influenced by Debussy’s late language.

A near-death experience in both piano and cello leads directly to the Finale, a largely joyous affair punctuated by sudden changes of mood and affect. In another reference to Classical models, Debussy casts it in the rondo form favored by generations of composers for closing movements. Rondos are structured by interleaving a main body of music—the reprise—with contrasting episodes. In this movement, the reprise is rhythmically foursquare, almost march-like, openly virtuosic in both instruments. The two episodes are languorous, even vague, characterized by a downright bluesy vocal line, given to the piano in the first episode, and shared between both instruments in the second. The final reprise intensifies the overall energy, referring back to the episodes (now anything but languorous), and ultimately hurtling to a culminating peroration of thundering D minor chords à la Beethoven.

 

Brahms: Sonata No. 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 38  

THE BACKSTORY As one of music’s supreme craftsmen, Johannes Brahms (1833-97) knew the worth of solid technique. He had come by his superb skills the hard way; rather than memorizing the punctilious dictates of venerable theoreticians, Brahms went to the source. In the works of his noble predecessors he found all the classrooms and textbooks he would ever need. From Schubert he learned song; from Bach and Palestrina he learned counterpoint; from Beethoven he learned everything.

Both Bach and Beethoven loom large in Brahms’s first chamber duo, the Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Opus 38 for Cello and Piano. His fascination with the combination of the two instruments dates from early in his career; consider the haunting opening of Piano Trio No. 1 (1854), as an arcing phrase in the piano is answered and confirmed by the cello. Brahms began work on the Cello Sonata as early as 1862, but in his usual ultra-perfectionist manner, he took his sweet time in finding his way to a finished product. Along the way he jettisoned a slow movement, thought by many commentators to have resurfaced twenty years later in the Second Cello Sonata. It wasn’t until 1865 that he added the complex, fugal finale as a capstone to what had become a three-movement cello sonata, the first significant addition to the genre since Beethoven’s five sonatas written from 1796 to 1817.

The E minor Sonata was recognized as a milestone of the cello repertory from the get-go, but not all were convinced. Cellists had issues with the challenges it poses in regard to achieving a decent balance between cello and piano—always a thorny issue with this particular combination—especially in the last-movement fugue. Brahms was his usual unhelpful self when they complained. A story is told of a cellist who played through the sonata with Brahms and griped about not being able to hear himself. Brahms shot back: “Lucky you!”

THE MUSIC Bach’s late The Art of Fugue hovers over the E minor Cello Sonata like a guardian angel. Bach’s fugue subject is an extraordinarily flexible little melody—which it would have to be given Bach’s treatment in fourteen fugues and four canons, all on the same basic figure. The subject in its inverted, or upside-down, guise underlays the introspective primary theme of Brahms’s opening movement; it begins with five notes—three outlining a minor triad and two forming an upper-neighbor figure on the triad’s highest note. That five-note figure is the source of materials throughout the movement, a sonata form of such expansiveness as to mask the strict economy of means by which it is constructed.

Brahms, ever aware of the idioms and techniques of the Viennese Classical era, harked back to his predecessors with a second-place Allegretto quasi Menuetto, that eighteenth-century dance that provided inner movements for all manner of works by Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven in his more gemütlich moods. Gentle and almost whimsical, it evokes the courtly aspect of the minuet, what Somerset Maugham so aptly described as “the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts.” A midway Trio, however, seems to channel the spirit of Brahms’s beloved mentor Robert Schumann, with its sinuous piano writing and occasional flashes of sharp dissonance amid an otherwise placid environment.

The finale is usually described as a fugue, but it’s just as accurate to call it a sonata form with fugal sections, much like Beethoven’s last cello sonata. Referring back to the first movement, it partakes of the limitless possibilities of The Art of the Fugue’s subject. It is written in Brahms’s most muscular idiom, giving the lie to his statement that it is “certainly not difficult to play.” Sometimes tumultuous, sometimes gentle, it’s almost a concerto for two instruments senza orchestra, two warriors fighting side by side to vanquish an unseen foe.

 

Rachmaninoff: Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 19

THE BACKSTORY Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was neither intuitive nor prolific as a chamber composer. His chamber catalog is not only modest, but it ends as of 1901, just as his compositional career recovered itself after a distinctly rocky start. His protean gifts notwithstanding, Rachmaninoff suffered mightily from lapses in self-confidence, particularly where composition was concerned. He might have shelved his compositional ambitions altogether after the 1897 premiere of his First Symphony. It was a debacle, as a shamefully incompetent performance under a reportedly drunken Alexander Glazunov had been followed by a communal lashing from Moscow critics. “If there were a Conservatory in Hell, and one of its students were to compose a symphony. . . ” began one particularly venomous review.

Three years of compositional paralysis followed. Posterity owes a heartfelt shout-out to physician Nikolai Dahl, who treated Rachmaninoff with daily hypnotherapy for three months and got him back on his compositional feet. At least that’s the standard story.  

Whatever the actual impetus, the Piano Concerto No. 2, completed in 1900, was the happy result. The Cello Sonata in G minor followed shortly thereafter in 1901, written for Rachmaninoff’s good friend, and best man at his wedding, Anatoli Brandukov. Although it’s easily as expansive, lyrical, effective, and worthy as the concerto, it has been overshadowed by the glare of its celebrity sibling.

The Sonata has been criticized as being overly pianistic with too little attention paid to the balance between cello and piano. That charge assumes a sonata for cello and piano; Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, thought of it as for piano and cello and even expressed annoyance over a broadcast performance that he considered to have placed the piano too far into the background. The piano part is concerto-like, while the cello luxuriates in its ability to do precisely what the piano cannot, which is to sustain tones continuously without the nature-mandated decrescendo that is the pianist’s lot. The cello soars lyrically as the piano creates soundscapes out of complex collages of notes; the partnership works quite well as long as both players take care to maintain an equal relationship between the two instruments.

THE MUSIC Rachmaninoff honors Tchaikovsky as well as his eighteenth-century forebears by opening the sonata with a slow introduction. Constructed out of an interrogative two-note figure, the introduction does an admirable job of leading into the Allegro moderato proper with a primary theme that is, not surprisingly, kicked off by more or less the same figure. The vast but carefully constructed movement features a captivating secondary theme that makes abundantly clear just what put Rachmaninoff among the most beloved composers of modern times—simultaneously mournful and yearning, it’s lusciously harmonized and altogether beguiling. After an expertly-managed journey through the dramatic landscape of classical sonata-allegro form, the movement concludes with one of those signature rat-a-tat figures that are so distinctly Rachmaninoff-ian as to serve as mottos.

A lightning-fast scherzo follows, its bustling whir set off by long-lined and limber melodies that come and go within all that activity. The heart of the sonata follows by way of an Andante slow movement with repeated notes that have elicited the pealing of Orthodox church bells for several commentators. The grandly heroic Allegro mosso finale brings it all to a satisfying conclusion—all the more so given its gloriously noble secondary theme. A Vivace coda refers back to the sonata’s opening figure, then the sonata ends with another Rachmaninoff trademark—a march of stern chords followed by a crisp, rat-a-tat punctuation.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.