The cello, with its rich, melancholic sound and tones, has long been a beloved instrument among musicians and listeners. Adapting through the centuries to varied styles and environments – from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites in the 18th century, to more recent arrangements of rock songs by groups like Apocalyptica and Latvia’s Melo-M, the sound of the cello has always been timeless.
The cello has also inspired many composers, and the cello repertoire has a particularly rich array of solo compositions. To present a few selections from this repertoire, notable Latvian cellist Gunta Ābele recorded an album of three solo cello works. Entitled Magnificello, the album was released by the Latvian national record label Skani in 2019.
Ābele’s album is truly a solo album – the three works included, by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, Latvian Pēteris Vasks, and Catalan Gaspar Cassadó, are for solo cello – no other instrument is to be heard on these recordings. Such is the magic of the cello, that even when performed solo, the sounds and images conjured by the performances by Ābele would make any other instrument superfluous.
Kodály’s work Sonata for Solo Cello op. 8, composed in 1915, unites both classical elements as well as Hungarian folk songs and dances. The majestic first movement, which makes dramatic tonal leaps, also has a mysterious element to it, with quick bursts of melody followed by subdued, somber sounds, all the while being dramatic and expressive. The slower second movement, with its long, mournful tones, brings forth a darker mood, perhaps influenced by the upheaval in Europe at that time. The third movement, perhaps the most overtly Hungarian of the three, is an almost frenetic dance, and Ābele’s performance is both energetic and nuanced.
In the Latvian repertoire, Pēteris Vasks’ “Grāmata” (or “Book”) for cello is a well known and beloved entry. Its two movements, being polar opposites (the first movement being fortissimo and the second being pianissimo), reveal a kind of duality, a kind of balance that only the sound of the cello could provide. Due to the work being so popular (it has been recorded many times by cellists around the world), it is a particular challenge to have one’s performance stand out, but Ābele is certainly up for it. From its tense, almost screaming beginnings, the first movement is at times tense, other times almost terrifying. Though composed in 1978, long before any faint hopes for Latvian freedom from Soviet occupation could be felt, Vasks perhaps expresses the pain and suffering of the oppressive regime in his music. The second movement, resigned and disconsolate, seems to project little hope or positivity. The cello is enhanced by Ābele singing a soft, wordless melody, giving the work an eerie, ghostly quality. Ābele’s performance of this work is both memorable and moving, confirming again why this is one of Vasks’ most affecting and poignant works.
Cassadó’s three movement Suite for Solo Cello, composed in the mid-1920s, a golden age of Spanish culture (the era of Dalí and Lorca, among many others), also synthesizes various cultural elements. Beginning with the Preludio-Fantasia, which seems to call to J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites, though also imbued with more modern elements, which then leads into the joyous dance of the second movement – Sardana. The suite concludes with the melodic Intermezzo e Danza Finale, an almost playful and festive performance, allowing Ābele to display her abilities in interpreting a multi-faceted work like this.
The three distinctive, 20th century cello works on Magnificello highlight Gunta Ābele’s skill and talent with the solo cello repertoire in its many diferent forms. All three of the works, expressive and multi-layered in their own distinctive ways, confirm not just Ābele’s abilities, but also the versatility and lyrical power of the cello.
LMIC/SKANI 073, 2019
Sonata for Solo Cello op. 8 (1915)
1. Allegro maestoso ma appassionato
2. Adagio (con grand’ espressione)
3. Allegro molto vivace
Grāmata čellam (1978)
(“The Book” for Solo Cello)
Suite for Solo Cello
8. Intermezzo e Danza Finale
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