• Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto (2011)

The BBC Proms have come up trumps with several of this year’s new pieces.  In the past ten days there have been three very different but fascinating premieres.  First up was the world premiere on Monday last week (22 August) of a BBC commission, Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto no.3 (2011), played by Barry Douglas and the BBCSO under Thomas Dausgaard.  Kevin was one of my colleagues in the 1980s at Queen’s University, Belfast, and he has consistently been one of the most individual minds (musical and non-musical) that I’ve met.  This sparkling new piece was typically challenging: daringly intuitive in its through-composed procedures as well as texturally captivating.  Here’s a link to a recording (the mp3 files on this page are gratefully linked from 5:4 <http://5-against-4.blogspot.com/>).

Volans: Third Piano Concerto


Then there was Anders Hillborg’s Cold Heat (2010), which was given its UK premiere on Saturday (27 August).  In the hands of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, conducted by David Zinman, it was rich in saturated instrumental and harmonic colours, zinged, paused, and drove forwards in ways that reminded me of Michael Torke’s early work, like Ecstatic Orange (1984).  Significantly, both of these high-energy works were influenced by rock bass riffs.

Hillborg: Cold Heat


Since then it’s been Graham Fitkin Week on BBC Radio 3, occasioned by the world premiere of his Cello Concerto (2011) last night by Yo-Yo Ma.  The channel does a good job in supporting a major Proms event with satellite concerts and features.  So, on Monday, Yo-Yo Ma played Fitkin’s fiftieth-birthday present to him, L for cello and piano (2005), at a BBC live lunchtime recital from the Cadogan Hall.  Then, on Tuesday, Fitkin appeared on In Tune and played three short piano pieces and we also heard Metal (1995), written for the RLPO for its return to the refurbished Philharmonic Hall.  And after the concerto’s premiere last night, there was a pre-recorded Proms Plus Portrait offering several more pieces played by young musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble.  This provided a useful chronological sample of Fitkin’s quite prolific output of chamber pieces: Sciosophy for two pianos, eight hands (1986), Hurl for saxophone quartet (1996) and Sinew for mixed sextet (2008).

Fitkin is best known for his use of monochrome ensembles (all-keyboard, all-saxophone, etc.) and highly motoric, driven music influenced by American minimalism and more particularly by his time studying in Holland with Louis Andriessen.  Other references spring to mind: Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmic and jazz-dance idiom, the overlapping motifs in stable harmonic fields explored over 400 hundred years ago by Tallis in Spem in Alium, and, in Sinew, the unmistakeable fast melodic unisons of Messiaen’s ‘Danse de la fureur’ from Quartet for the End of Time.  Here’s a glimpse of characteristic Fitkin: an excerpt from Log for six pianos (1990), in a performance given by pianocircus at Kings Place, London, on 7 February this year.

Yet, as an excerpt from another work in this concert demonstrates, there is a quieter Fitkin.  The title (Line, 1991) may not be insignificant.

All this brings me to last night’s premiere, when Yo-Yo Ma was joined by the BBCSO under David Robertson.  During the preceding days, the most repeated hint about the work from Fitkin had been his account of how he wanted to explore and exploit Ma’s legendary tone and command of line.  So he’d asked Ma to play a long-held Bb to see how varied and expressive it could be.  This idea proved to be key, in more senses than one, and was one of many unexpected aspects to this impressive concerto.

Coming in at 30’, this is a substantial piece, crafted as an unbroken single movement.  When asked on In Tune if he’d listened to any other cello concertos in preparation for his own, Fitkin talked mainly about the balance between soloist and orchestra.  On that score, he seems to have learned any lessons that were there to be learned.  Fitkin’s residency with the RLPO in 1994-97 evidently gave him the confidence to handle varied and massed forces, and his Cello Concerto reaped these rewards.  In the opening minutes, after the soloist’s initial gesture of a rising major 7th, B-Bb, the way in which the orchestra seemed to want to embrace the cello’s sustained Bb with beguiling chords and textures was magical (echoes of Schoenberg’s ‘Farben’?).  Even when the texture was at its most frenzied, later in the piece, there was superb clarity.

What was immediately striking – and, insofar as I know his music, a new departure – was the prevailing lyricism of the music, recalling that famous Prom premiere 22 years ago of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, in which the cello soloist was Steven Isserlis.  The two works are nevertheless very different in intention and character and, indeed, in orchestration (the Tavener was only for strings).  While Tavener aimed for transcendence, Fitkin’s luminosity is often pained (edgy orchestral timbres play their part in this).  This was no sweet lyricism, instead one which seemed to have an undertow of sadness.

Although the Cello Concerto plays without a break, there are clear expressive phases.  After the opening 5’, a second, ‘lullaby’ section is initiated by two alternating chords, one major, one minor, dominated by harp sonorities.  Unhappy with reaching for a ‘20th-century English pastoral’ parallel, as one or two of today’s newspaper reviews have done, I’ve been racking my brains as to why this plangent pairing of chords a minor third apart rang bells.  And then it hit me: this is exactly the same chordal pattern that Busoni used in his Berceuse for piano (1909), also known in an orchestral version as Berceuse élégiaque.  This work struck a chord 80 years later with John Adams, who arranged it for chamber orchestra in 1989.  I’ve no idea whether my making a connection with Busoni has any relevance to what Fitkin intended, but it does at least underline the emotional undertow that I detect in his concerto.

By this stage, it becomes clear that Fitkin has thought carefully not only about the textural and timbral world of the concerto but also about the place of thematic material in his design.  The cellist’s first idea, B natural rising to Bb, now continues, down a tone to Ab (the B natural and Ab each being a component of one of the ‘lullaby’ chords) and on further.  This expressive motif assumes a central role in the work.

More familiar Fitkin territory appears in the main central episode, a scherzo (c.10’ in) which leads to the main climax at c.22’.  This episode becomes increasingly agitated and dynamic.  After some early tutti interruptions (c.14’), there is a lull, when the main motif returns.  This lyrical highpoint heralds a pause in the scherzo section and the cello starts to play gliss-pizzicandi against lullaby chords.  When the scherzo resumes, it becomes more frenetic and there is a trading of blows (c. 20’30”) leading to a sustained chord and a culminating sequence of some 17 chordal repetitions, the last seven of which accelerate collapse.  This seems to be the moment, referred to by the composer in the pre-performance interview, when the concerto is “sliced, with a wedge driven through it about 3/4 of the way through”.

Out of this catharsis (c. 22’) comes perhaps the most affecting music, the cello keening gently on its main motif, now pointedly a semitone lower than before.  There is a brief rally some 4’ later, where the intensity of the cello’s utterances seems to border on anger or bewilderment.  Its final, distant pitch – Bb – is now a couple of octaves higher than it was at the start of the piece.

On In Tune, perhaps a bit reluctantly, Fitkin had named two composers whose cello concertos he had listened to when preparing to write his own: Shostakovich and, firstly, Lutosławski.  Well my ears pricked up at this, so I was on the listen-out for any overt links to the Polish composer’s example (1970).  And there are some.

Firstly, there is the focus on the soloist at the start and the end, both concertos involving some sense of character transition.  While Lutosławski’s soloist moves from indifferente open-string D naturals to ‘triumphant’ high A naturals at the end, Fitkin’s journey is less traumatic and, though the soloist’s final note is higher than it was at the start, it’s still the same pitch.  Then there is the crushing of the soloist by decisive orchestral chords and the cellist’s anguished response (compare Lutosławski’s ten chords at Fig. 133 and what follows).  It is the concept of separation between soloist and orchestra, however, that is the most significant parallel with Lutosławski, even though each composer has a rather different take on what this can mean and how it can be achieved (the Lutosławski is generally grittier, less emotionally open and certainly more confrontational than the Fitkin).

Lutosławski’s soloist is an innocent abroad, afflicted by the society around him (if one’s looking for extramusical contexts, 1970 was a fraught time in Eastern Europe), who, despite his attempts at rapprochement, is hammered into the ground, only to rise apparently triumphant at the end.  Fitkin’s soloist, in contrast, is a composed, self-sufficient and self-aware character.  It is the orchestra which approaches him, cajoles him with beguiling chords and textures.  He does go through what might be heard as a fire-and-water trial (had his key note been Eb one might be tempted to see masonic, Mozartian parallels!), but his self-determination is unshakeable.  As a representative of the insignificance of man in the world (to paraphrase Fitkin), he’s remarkably assured.

In the programme note, John Fallas writes that the concerto ends ‘with the cellist once again songful and the orchestra unmoved, apparently indifferent’.   If Fitkin agrees with ‘indifferent’ (I’m not sure that I do), it’s a role and structural reversal of Lutosławski’s idea.  In the Pole’s concerto, the soloist’s indifferenteinstruction at the start sows the seed of conflict with the orchestra.  Fitkin’s soloist, by contrast, like a magnificent sailing ship or even a tiny ketch, is more than equal to any blandishments or tests that the indifferent elements throw at him, especially with a masterly Yo-Yo Ma at the helm.

Yet I can’t help feeling that, if Lutosławski’s model for his soloist was the hero of a Greek drama or the central character in a Conrad novel, Fitkin’s model is altogether more veiled.  He has talked about alienation today, about ‘following a path, often isolated, trying to hold true, sometimes failing, sometimes not’.  To my ears, there was a greater sense of interdependence between soloist and orchestra than this suggests.  At the Cello Concerto’s heart, I sensed a somewhat different underlying impulse, that of private tragedy, perhaps, which informed the solo part from start to finish.  Maybe that is reading too much into what Fitkin says is ‘fundamentally an abstract piece of music’.  In any case, I believe that this is an important and eloquent addition to the already rich repertoire of the cello concerto.  Let us hope that other soloists will be queuing up to perform it.

Fitkin: Cello Concerto



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