The violin and cello duo cannot be considered as a musical rarity; yet it is also far from one of the most popular instrumental combinations in Western classical music. It is a challenging ensemble for both those composing for it and those venturing in the performance of its repertoire. It is a duo which invites counterpoint: the deep nature of both instruments and their vocation is to melodic singing, to the sustained lines which translate the human being’s aspiration to vocality into instrumental music. In consequence, to undertake a composition for violin and cello duo is also to implicitly accept the challenge of polyphony, and to affirm one’s mastery of its most intricate secrets.
Of course, however, the potential of neither instrument is exhausted by mere melodicism. Both are capable of performing double, triple, and even quadruple stops; both have at their disposal a great variety of timbres, ranging from pizzicato to col legno, from the numerous parts of the bow which can be used to the various parts of the strings where the bow can act, and which produce different sounds depending on position, weight, attack, and so on.
However, many of these techniques are the product of twentieth-century experimentalism. While the technique of bowed strings was already impressively developed in the Baroque era (one has merely to think of Tartini or Biber, to name but two), and the virtuosi of the nineteenth century brought it to unrivalled heights (Paganini is the first name which comes to mind), the ideal was always that of a “beautiful” tone. It was only in the twentieth century that alternatives to “beauty” came to the fore, and that “interesting” sounds became even more attractive than rich and warm tones. This allowed for experimentations, at times for extreme ones, which however enriched the palette of both instruments individually, and of the duo as a whole.
The works recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album cover a timespan of nearly sixty years, positioned in perfect symmetry with respect to the twentieth century: the first work dates from twenty years after the century’s beginning, the last one from twenty years before its ending.
Still, the ensemble employed by the four composers represented here is by no means the only element they have in common. In spite of their entirely different personalities, education and style, all four are at the forefront of the thorniest battle of the musical twentieth century, i.e. that surrounding the quest for a language and a style. More precisely, indeed, all four have found in the mixture of styles (in what will be called polystylism, particularly with reference to Schnittke) an alternative to the rigid labels and dogmatic precepts of other members of the musical avantgardes.
It may come as a surprise that this concept be applied to Maurice Ravel. For many, he is – together with Claude Debussy – the champion of musical Impressionism. Doubtlessly, some of the most iconic “Impressionist” works were signed by him (one has merely to think of Jeux d’eau). However, Ravel’s style, if seen in its globality, draws from a variety of stimuli and provocations: from jazz music to Spanish folklore, from Far-East suggestions to musical imagery. His Sonata for Violin and Cello dates from exactly a century ago. Europe was slowly recovering from the inhuman tragedy of World War I. And in the year which had seen the end of the war, i.e. 1918, the musical world had lost one of its heroes, the Frenchman Claude Debussy. Maurice Ravel, moreover, had another reason for mourning, and a much more personal one: in 1917 he had lost his beloved mother, and this had brought him on the verge of a mental collapse. The composer sought refuge in a remote area of the Ardèche, where he slowly recovered his creative powers and his desire to compose. The gestation of this Duo coincided with that of one of his masterpieces, L’Enfant et les sortilèges.
Ravel was not a quick writer; he needed to think for a long time over the pieces he was composing, until, as he put it, he could see their form and shape in full, and they were ready for being put on paper. Thus, the composition of the Sonata took him nearly two years, from 1920 to 1922. In late 1920, the magazine La revue musicale asked him to contribute a piece for a special issue by the title of Tombeau de Debussy, dedicated to the recently deceased colleague and friend. The same request was addressed to several other major composers of the era, including Stravinsky, Bartók, Dukas, Satie, De Falla and others. Ravel contributed the first movement of his unfinished Duo (this was its provisional title, paying homage to Kodály’s eponymous work for violin and cello, written in 1914). The piece took him more than one further year to complete. He ironically commented that Milhaud could have written “four symphonies, five quartets”, and the musical settings of “several lyrical poems by Paul Claudel” in that same time.
The premiere of the complete work was given at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, on April 6th, 1922. The violinist was Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, a close friend of Ravel, of whom she would later author a biography; the cellist was Maurice Maréchal. The work took the Parisian audiences by surprise. Its style was much more angular, dissonant, bare and naked than that of many of Ravel’s earlier works, which at times indulged in luxuriant sonorities and fascinating timbral mixtures. Ravel was not present at the premiere, and rumours were reported to him that the work’s failure to please was due to the performers; on the other hand, the performers were told that Ravel attributed the disaster to their performance. Ravel tackled the issue directly and briefly, and clearly affirmed that he was by no means charging the musicians with the work’s fiasco. It was simply the music which was too ahead of time.
Still, for others even Ravel could be considered as a musician of the past. Probably Erwin Schulhoff would never have said so, but certainly his own Duo for violin and cello, written in 1925, begins where Ravel left off. The variety of sounds, styles, timbres and ideas found in this piece is typical for its composer, but by no means common at his time. Schulhoff was originally from Czechia, and had a German-Jewish ancestry. He studied at the Conservatory of Prague, thanks to Dvořák’s enthusiasm for his talent. He had the opportunity of studying with Debussy, albeit briefly, but then his life – as that of millions of others – was disrupted by the war’s outbreak. What Schulhoff saw at the front changed him forever, and he took a firm political stance in the ranks of the Left. This also impacted on his musical style, which brought Ravel’s “polystylism” to the next stage. In his language flow influences from such different currents as Expressionism, Jazz, Latin American music, but also Dadaism and Neoclassicism, without forgetting the folk music of his native land. Politics also led to his death, since his Leftist sympathies brought him under the lens of the Third Reich, and he died of tuberculosis in 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp.
This was still unforeseeable in 1925, when Schulhoff composed his Duo, where the full dynamic and timbral palette of the two instruments (and of their combination) is employed. Among the numerous musical suggestions found here, there is the unexpected mixture of exoticism and avantgarde, with elements ranging from Far-Eastern pentatonic scales to gypsy tunes happily mixing together.
Originality was not missing also from Arthur Honegger’s personality. A Swiss, Honegger spent his life in Paris, and his musical education seemingly was very traditional. Moreover, his talent did not conquer all who heard his works, and his Conservatory studies were far from exceptionally brilliant. However, his gifts caught the attention of many valuable artists, and Honegger was soon enlisted in the Groupe des Six, founded and promoted by Jean Cocteau. The group’s nonconformism, however, was felt by Honegger as excessively… conformist; instead of the anarchy proposed (at least verbally) by some of his colleagues, Honegger claimed that the primacy of rigour, in the fashion of Bach whom he greatly admired, could not be relinquished lightly.
His own Sonatina for violin and cello follows Ravel’s by exactly ten years, and here Honegger’s appreciation of Bach and of his polyphonic writing clearly appears. In this composition we find many allusions to the music of Bach, intended both as the coexistence of melodic lines in polyphony and as the effort to reproduce, on the violin and cello, the rich texture of a chorale-like evocation. Other aspects, however, are derived from Honegger’s contemporaneity; for instance, the composer does not eschew modernist traits such as the aimless wandering of ornamental lines by the violin in the central movement.
This album closes with a piece written almost fifty years after Honegger’s. It is Stille Musik by Alfred Schnittke, another musician of Jewish descent who spent most of his life in the Soviet Union. Similar to Schulhoff, Schnittke’s parents had explicitly chosen the USSR for ideological reasons, which their son did not accept. In fact, his output is frequently veined by mystical and religious suggestions, which can be beautifully observed also in his Stille Musik. This piece, written in 1979 and premiered in Paris by Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, is brief in duration but fascinating in its sequence of ecstatic, contemplative, chorale-like chords with slight movements in term of volume and dynamics. Here too the impression is of at least a quartet playing, thanks to the knowledgeable use of double and triple stopping; still, it is not effect for effect’s sake, but rather a thoughtful analysis of what the duo violin and cello can offer.
It is particularly suited, therefore, for this piece to conclude our itinerary in the history of the violin and cello duo: it opens up new perspectives, where the difficulties and challenges posed by this duo are overcome by the composer’s desire to impart his own research for a novel language on it.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
The Duo Synopsis was formed in 2006 after years of collaboration in the field of chamber music between the violinist Igor Cantarelli and the cellist Gregorio Buti.
Over the years the duo engaged in multiple and prestigious collaborations with musicians such as Bruno Canino, Alexander Lonquich, Enrico Bronzi, Uri Caine, Simonide Braconi, Vladimir Mendelssohn, Ivan Rabaglia, Alessandro Carbonare and played in important international festivals: International Festival of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Ruhrfestspiele of Recklinghausen, Mantua International Chamber Music Festival, 61st Festival Internacional de Santander, Città di Castello “Festival of Nations”, Bologna Festival, Ferrara Musica.
The Duo has also joined several ensembles in particular as members of the Classical Quartet "Ensemble Symposium" and the "Überbrettl Ensemble". With “Ensemble Symposium” the Duo Synopsis was invited in 2015 to the prestigious Berlin Festival “Tage für Alte Musik” and have recorded for Brilliant Classic. Together with the "Überbrettl Ensemble" the Duo has performed all over the world in the most important institutions such as Wiener Festwochen, Nice Opera House, "Parco della Musica" in Rome, Ravenna Festival, Monteverdi Cremona Festival.
The Duo’s repertoire ranges from ancient music played on original instruments to the most important works of the twentieth century and contemporary works including pieces composed expressly for the Duo.
Alfred (Garriyevich) Schnittke [Shnitke]
(b Engels, 24 Nov 1934; d Hamburg, 3 Aug 1998). Russian composer.
(Czech: Ervín Šulhov; 8 June 1894 – 18 August 1942) was an Austro-Czech composer and pianist. He was one of the figures in the generation of European musicians whose successful careers were prematurely terminated by the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and whose works have been rarely noted or performed.
Maurice Ravel (b Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, 7 March 1875; d Paris, 28 Dec 1937). French composer. He was one of the most original and sophisticated musicians of the early 20th century. His instrumental writing – whether for solo piano, for ensemble or for orchestra – explored new possibilities, which he developed at the same time as (or even before) his great contemporary Debussy, and his fascination with the past and with the exotic resulted in music of a distinctively French sensibility and refinement.