When the late Hans Keller was asked “What music do you listen to for fun?” he replied, “For fun, I tell jokes.” He would have liked this record. For we have here three British Cello Concertos, composed in the last quarter-century, all of them eminently serious works, yet each containing passages in which the serious nature of the musical arguments from three quite different composers are lightened by passages that provide contrast and wholly organic demonstrations of the nature of each work – which they each share: a concentration upon the musical argument arising from the material itself.
Not for Robert Simpson (1921-97), John Joubert (born 1927) or Christopher Wright (born 1954) the sudden arrival (often an indication of a lack of genuine creativity) of spurious elements of texture, of meretricious invention, or the imposition of elements from other types of music which have, as their bases, the essence of superficiality, which would degrade the momentous nature of the works in question.
Not that music cannot be humorous, but that humour, like longevity, has its place, and one must welcome the first recordings of these deeply impressive works, at least one of which – Simpson’s – is a self-evident and demonstrable masterpiece. If I begin with this work, from 1991, it is because Simpson is the oldest of the three composers here. It was his last orchestral work and it has struck me quite forcibly, not least its extraordinary structure – simple, yet subtle and original. It is cast as a set of eleven variations on a theme which is hinted at in a brief introduction before the first of the three movements proper begin, each one made up of a group of variations: I – 1-4, II – 5-6, III – 9-11, each movement longer than its predecessor. They are wide-ranging in mood but each grows quite naturally one to another. Each group has a necessary overall cohesion which adds to the subtle organic unity of the work’s conception.
You don’t have to be an analyst to grasp the expressive qualities of Simpson’s Cello Concerto: this is music, not architecture, a work that makes an immediate impression on the attentive listener, and I for one cannot urge this piece strongly enough on music-lovers who respond to works that do not insult their intelligence, nor seeks to provide an anodyne background continuum to their busy lives.
John Joubert’s Concerto was composed in 2012, in which year this admirable composer celebrated his 85th-birthday. The structure is also unusual – two movements, of equal length – with a Mozartean-sized orchestra of woodwinds, two horns and strings. Joubert’s expressive range is remarkably wide, the soloist predominantly to the fore of course, and the music never veers from the continuous, occasionally intense, discussion of the main material, itself constructed from small connected cells. Here is a perfect partner to Simpson’s work, and I have no doubt that each composer would readily assert the greatest admiration for the other’s music.
Christopher Wright’s Cello Concerto is from 2011, when riots that summer convulsed Britain and provided the impetus for this work, the shortest (at 19 minutes) of the three here, and the most ‘traditional’ in having three movements. This is not a programmatic work, but it is as well to have the inspiration in mind, not least for the emotional unfolding of the piece as it travels from the nature of the first movement (marked Allegretto furioso e sardonicamente) to the Andante tranquillo conclusion of the finale. The ‘character’ of each part of the work is readily identifiable, with vivid contrasts being suddenly presented at times, yet the underlying aspects of the music are never obscured, especially in Raphael Wallfisch’s magnificent performance. Perhaps the most important point about this record is that all three Concertos were written for and premiered by Wallfisch, who gives utterly compelling accounts of them, with first-rate contribution from BBCNOW and William Boughton, and captured in excellent sound.
The essence of good composition for the cello is that the composer fully comprehends the unique nature of the instrument’s tuning. What is apparent to this listener is that all three composers have grasped this principle, resulting in a collection of impressive works each of which merits recorded representation and demands investigation, not least by all established and aspiring cellists.