Noreen Cassidy Polera, Pianist

12 Variations on A Theme from "Judas Maccabaus"
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
By Handel for Cello and Piano

By Lawrence Budmen

Beethoven was a master of the theme and variation form. His greatest contribution to this genre is the masterful "Diabelli Variations." He also composed several more intimate scores (as well as individual movements in larger works) that were variants of this musical form. In 1796 Beethoven composed a set of 12 variations (in G Major) on the chorale "Hail the Conquering Hero" from the oratorio "Judas Maccabaus" by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). This elegantly crafted, virtuosic work is a great vehicle for the cello and piano soloists. (For listeners to the annual BBC "Last Night at the Proms" concert, the theme will be familiar. Sir Henry Wood used Handel's chorale in his "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" - a perennial work on the final Proms concert every year.) 

Sonata No.1 in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 38
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms wrote over 100 chamber music scores but only two dozen survived his intense self criticism and his concern about composing in the shadow of Beethoven. His "Cello Sonata No.1" was the first duo sonata that Brahms allowed to be published. This score pre-dates Brahms's monumental First Symphony. Three movements were written during a concert tour in 1862. (Brahms received considerable acclaim as a pianist.) By the time the score was completed in 1865, Brahms had discarded an Adagio and added a new finale which pays tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with its inventive fugal structure. Brahms composed this new movement around the same time he was writing his "German Requiem" - another score that owes much of its inspiration to the Baroque splendor of Bach's liturgical works.

There is a darkly somber cast to the opening Allegro ma non troppo. The unusually low range of the cello writings gives the entire movement a uniquely melancholy beauty. A more vigorous second subject only briefly imparts a more robust character to the music, after which brooding Romanticism returns in full sway. The intense atmosphere is embellished by the gravely halting piano chords at the movement's outset. (With its dark, rich coloration, this movement is quintessential Brahms.) The second movement - Allegretto quasi Menuetto - is based on a classical dance form. This minuet, however, could never be mistaken for Haydn or Mozart. The wistful melody and surprising turns of phrase is pure Brahms. The vigorous fugal Allegro finale salutes Bach's "Art of the Fugue." (There are three thematic subjects - the first a variant of one of Bach's themes.) In this movement Brahms's mastery of contrapuntal writing comes to the fore. That Brahms managed to create such a masterful fugue within sonata form merely attests to his genius. Brahms's first extant duo sonata is an extraordinary work! 

Suite for Solo Cello
Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966)

A native of Barcelona, Gaspar Cassado was the son of an organist and composer. Cassado was a child prodigy extraordinaire. He gave his first public cello recital at nine years of age. The great Catalan cellist-conductor-composer Pablo Casals was present at that performance and was so impressed that he offered to teach the gifted young cellist. After receiving a scholarship from the City of Barcelona, Cassado went to Paris where he became Casals's first pupil. He also studied composition with Maurice Ravel and Manuel De Falla. 

After World War 1, Cassado toured internationally and achieved world wide fame as a cello virtuoso. As a composer he wrote numerous works for the cello and other instruments. His "Cello Concerto in D Minor" was dedicated to his mentor Casals, under whose baton he often performed. Cassado settled in Florence, Italy where he lived for some three decades. As late as 1964 he premiered six unpublished sonatas by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). He played those scores on a Stradivarius cello that was once owned by Boccherini.

For his Suite for Solo Cello - composed in 1926 - Cassado turned to a form perfected by Bach. (Indirectly Cassado was paying tribute to his mentor Casals. It was Casals who introduced Bach's daringly original Cello Suites to 20th century audiences.) As in Bach's suites, a Preludio is succeeded by dance movements - only two in this work. Cassado's music combines the austere nobility of his native Spain with the formalism of the Baroque and harmonies that would make Ravel (Cassado's teacher) proud. This music is an important memento of one of the cello's great exponents. 

Sonata in C Major for Cello and Piano, Opus 119
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

From a 21st century perspective, it is difficult to imagine that the composition of Prokofiev's "Cello Sonata in C Major" occurred during the composer's darkest hour. With the commencement of the Cold War, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed that all Soviet art must be uplifting - reflecting the glory of the Soviet nation and people. Andrei Zhdanov, a recently promoted Politburo member, was put in charge of developing and enforcing Soviet cultural orthodoxy. In a 1948 address to a Communist Party Congress, Zhdanov denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khatchaturian, and Miaskovsky (one of Prokofiev's closest friends) for writing music that was "too cosmopolitan and formalist." An unofficial ban on these composers' music followed Zhdanov's denouncement. His creativity as strong as ever, Prokofiev continued to compose new works but he could not be sure if his creations would ever be performed in public. The Russian cellist and teacher Mistislav Rostropovich was an artist who remained loyal to his creative allies. Prokofiev attended a concert in 1949 at which Rostropovich performed Nikolai Miaskovsky's "Cello Sonata No.2." Prokofiev was so overcome with joy at the cellist's performance that he resolved to write a sonata for Rostropovich. The composer liked to work on several scores at once. At his home at Nikolinaya Gora near Moscow, Prokofiev wrote the new Cello Sonata at the same time he created the symphonic suite "Winter Bonfire"; the ballet "The Stone Flower"; and the "Pushkin Waltzes. He dedicated the new sonata to his close friend L.T. Atovmian, a composer and one of Moscow's musical luminaries. 

Rostropovich recruited the brilliant young pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who had given the first performance of Prokofiev's bracing Seventh Piano Sonata) to join him in premiering the new sonata. Richter was apolitical - first and foremost a superb musician and artist. In his memoirs Richter notes "We gave the first performance of Prokofiev's Cello Sonata. Before playing it in concert, we had to perform it at the Composer's Union, where these gentlemen decided the fate of all new works. During this period more than any other, they needed to work out whether Prokofiev had produced a new masterpiece or, conversely, a piece that was 'hostile to the spirit of the people.' Three monthes later, we had to play it again at a plenary session of all the composers who sat on the Radio Committee, and it wasn't until the following year that we were able to perform it in public, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on March 1, 1950." In his diary Miaskovsky hailed the occasion: "Yesterday Rostropovich and Richter openly played the Cello Sonata by Prokofiev in concert - a miraculous piece of music!" A successful premiere and a small victory over the Soviet musical bureaucracy! (The following year Rostropovich and Richter would again take up Prokofiev's cause. The two artists arranged for the first performance of the ambitious "Sinfonia Concertante" for Cello and Orchestra. With the score's dedicatee Rostropovich as soloist, Richter made his only appearance as an orchestral conductor. Prokofiev would later dedicate his Ninth Piano Sonata to Richter, who played the premiere and kept the work in his active repertoire.) 

The sonata's first movement Andante grave opens with a somber chorale. As in the first cello sonata of Johannes Brahms, much of the writing is for the cello's dark lower register. The Moderato (rondo) takes the form of a scherzo. The central episode - Andante dolce - is of contrasting, lyrical character. There is a poignant undercurrent to this thematic cell - suggesting a darker subtext. The Allegro ma non troppo transforms thematic material from the first movement into a brilliantly virtuosic, exhilarating finale. Beyond the fiendishly difficult instrumental pyrotechnics of the finale, Prokofiev's inspired melodic writing becomes a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit! 

Speaking of Prokofiev's late works, Sviatoslav Richter wrote "After the 5th Symphony, the final stage in Prokofiev's life began. It was noticeable in his music. He rose to new heights, perhaps the greatest heights of all. But it remained the final stage…" The "Cello Sonata in C Major" is a wonderfully inventive and effusive song of twilight. A soaring, lyrically sophisticated tribute to the power of creative inspiration of a genius!

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