Thursday, 1 September 2011

Gulda Cello concerto

I had a whale of a time on the Edinburgh Fringe with St Clements Wind Ensemble. We had a fantastic programme for our two concerts in Canongate Kirk.

We started with arrangements by Michael Round for wind ensemble of three Debussy piano preludes: "General Lavine - Eccentric", "Canope" and "Les collines d'Anacapri".

Then we played the three movements with tenor solo from the Schoenberg chamber arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. "Mahler" and "chamber music" don't naturally sit in the same sentence. One associates Mahler with huge orchestral forces - his original orchestral version requires 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes (1 doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets, 1 Eb clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contra), 4 horns, three trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, harp, mandolin, sundry percussion and strings to accompany the two solo singers. So a chamber arrangement for string quartet, double bass, wind quintet, piano, harmonium and percussion (1 player) really ought not to work at all.

And yet it does. Admittedly, in the opening to the first movement "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" the strings are sawing away madly and can't much be heard above the wind and percussion, but it settles down after that, and you learn something about Mahler which isn't instantly obvious from the large orchestras he asks for. For quite a lot of the time, he uses the forces available in order to construct ad hoc chamber ensembles in varying combinations. And so, Das Lied can be played with a chamber ensemble, you just have to change round the instrumentation. And that is what Schoenberg did with the first movement (the rest of the arrangement was finished off by Rainer Riehn).

Then we played an arrangement for double wind quintet I have put together of Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, partly because it is the bicentenary of Liszt's birth this year, and partly because I just plain like the piece, and think it is unfair that pianists have so many good tunes that other players don't get a chance to have a go at! No smaller group would really work, because there are times when the piece is all down in the bass, and I need 4 or 5 instruments capable of managing that range, and sometimes both hands are up around the top of the treble stave. Of course, I gave the opening rather portentious tune to myself to play as a horn solo, but tried to make sure just about everybody had some interesting stuff, and I was really pleased how well it all seemed to fit together.

The last piece in the programme though was the highlight as far as I was concerned, Friedrich Gulda's Concerto for Cello and Wind. On one of the cello forums a contributor has described the piece as "A pioneering work of jazz-rock-classical-marching band fusion". Although it sounds like he's taking the mickey, that is actually a very good and accurate description. It is a completely mad piece, but absolutely tremendous fun to play.

The instrumentation is eccentric. Solo cello, flute doubling piccolo, 2 oboes. 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, trombone, tuba, guitar, double bass, drumkit. The guitar and double bass have to be amplified, and so does the solo cello for the outer movements.

The first movement (Overture) opens in big-band style, with a cello riff over percussion accompaniment with an occasional interjection from the brass, and then with a trill and a cadence the mood changes completely, with a gentle tune in the woodwind, taken over by the solo cello with the first horn. Another trill and we are back to big band style.

The second movement (Idylle) starts with a slow gentle chorale for lower brass, the first horn taking the tune initially, before the cello repeats it. And then the mood abruptly changes again into an Austrian ländler, the oboes and clarinets yodelling up and down, before the cello takes over, and the chorale returns for the end.

The third movement (Cadenza) is for unaccompanied solo cello, nearly 7 minutes of it, and Gulda seems at times to take the piss out of over-long and elaborate romantic cadenzas, and also out of the kind of "squeaky gate" music that was all the avant-garde in the 60s and 70s (the piece was composed in 1980)

The Menuett has a renaissance dance feel to it, and also rather reminded me in tone and style of Rondrigo's Fantasia para un Gentilhombre.

The Finale alla Marcia is a rather mad marching band, the horns and trumpets are given full license to make the most raucous din possible "Stürze hoch" (bells up) and the cello has notes flying in all directions. There are elements of Sousa that are entirely recognisable. At one point it all quietens down into repeated chords and it sounded as if the tenor soloist from the Mahler ought at this point to come in singing the Toreador song from Carmen! There is passage designed to sound like a steam train, there are trumpets playing mariachi style. The whole thing is just gloriously crazy. You can't do this piece justice if you merely try and play it, you have to completely throw yourself into it.

We nearly weren't able to perform it at all, as our intended soloist Johannes Osterlee went down with tendonitis a week or so before the concert and couldn't play, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. We were really lucky to get Thomas Carroll to step in at such short notice, and he played the piece with incredible verve and vigour, and he deservedly had a standing ovation from the audience for both performances.

I can't remember when I last had such a huge grin plastered across my face at the end of a concert!


  1. Bravo!

    Would absolutely loved to have been there. That program sounded great from the get go - really wonderful it came off so well.

    That involuntary grin you mention at the end is something I've experienced to some degree, but only reading this brought it into conscious awareness.

  2. Oh that! That's "flow" in part, the pleasure of having played a difficult piece well and for the audience to have clearly appreciated it.

    But in addition, the Gulda was such fun to play. The music had wit and humour to it, it doubled the pleasure of the performance.

    And also there was the joy of seeing Thomas Carroll absolutely throw himself into the solo cello part and produce sounds I didn't think were possible from a cello.

    And lastly, the music was very different from anything I have played before. I've never played in a big band, jazz band or similar (they tend not to need French horns) and so in playing terms I haven't often come across pieces with a jazz element, and when they have come along, classically trained musicians in their panic at an unfamiliar genre tend to play very stiffly. But some of our players did have some jazz experience - our drummer for instance was primarily a jazz rather than a classical musician, and so we all gor into the spirit of it.

    On youtube, there is a video of the piece being played by the New Japan Symphony orchestra. And they are so stiff!

  3. Great description - Thanks. Makes me wish even more I could have been there. Congratulations on taking a chance with the program and ending up making such a great connection with each other and the audience.

  4. Hello !
    I'm analysing the last movement of the Gulda cello concerto for class and looking it up on internet I fell on your article. I'm very curious as to where you found your information (about the train, the mariachi style...) : was it your conductor who explained it to you ? Because the train passage especially, I hadn't heard it by myself at all, but I loved finding out about it ! Does the mariachi style refer to the passage right before what I find to be yodling which is just before the train passage ?
    I would love it if you answered m, thank you for your help !

  5. Hi masha

    Sorry it has take a while to get back to you, been very busy with other stuff.

    Nobody told me about any of the points I've made in the article, it is all based on my own impressions from hearing it.

    The train passage just so obviously sounded like a train, I assumed that it must have been deliberately written with that in mind, with the repeated rhythm and the percussion, and the "whistle" of the muted fluttertongue brass falling in pitch as if a steam train is passing.

    The mariachi section is the trumpet duet just after the stream train section. I've heard it done with an extremely exaggerated vibrato in the trumpets.

    The mariachi