Cellos & Canapés programme notes

Our second-ever Symphony Extra offers spice to warm up your January. Join the Cellissimo Ensemble and chase away the post-Christmas blues with works by South American composers and more contemporary pieces like Coldplay’s Viva la Vida!

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Symphony Extra B – Cellos & Canapés

Àstor Piazzola – La Muerte del Angel
The Argentinian earned international recognition for great skill in both his performance and composition of tangos. The speedy, virtuosic theme first appears in a three-voice fugal texture, settling to a hesitant middle section before returning with a vengeance in a tutti. A favourite of Piazzola’s, it often featured on his set lists.

Philip Heseltine – Capriol Suite
Gaining attention during his lifetime for both musical accomplishments and his weekends of debauchery, the British composer’s use of the pseudonym Peter Warlock indicated his interest in the occult. He was active in music journalism and composition, turning his attention to both contemporary music, like works of his idol Frederick Delius, and music dating as far back as the Renaissance. Warlock himself indicated the suite’s melodies were based on dance tunes found in Thoinot Arbeau’s 1589 dance manual Orchésographie. Here, Warlock shows a strong hand at crafting simple melodies in miniature form, while also maintaining the rhythmic vitality rooting these pieces in the dance.

Wilhelm Fitzenhagen – Concert Waltz
One of the most prominent cellists in Russia from the early 1870s until the composer’s death in 1890, Fitzenhagen had a close relationship with Tchaikovsky, who dedication his Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra to his German friend. Fitzenhagen himself was active as a composer, though few of his works survive. Of those, this one stands out for the ingenuity of his writing for this favourite instrument, discernible in his skill at making bass melodies emerge amidst bass accompaniment.

U2’s With or Without You / Coldplay’s Viva La Vida
In recent years, pop groups have joined classical composers in using the cello for artistic expression. Duet 2cellos have been praised by Elton John and invited to join his recent tours. Viva la Vida is perhaps the most recent memorable cello melody, acting as the vehicle for a nostalgic longing for past glories. Similar despondency in With or Without You was expressed through sustained guitar parts, a feature that works well in long cello tones.

Edward Elgar – Elegy
A lesser-known work in Elgar’s giant oeuvre, as the title suggests, deep lamentation can be heard in the long sustained chords with which the piece opens. Its quiet dynamic assists in creating a mournful atmosphere that in the end fades into a distant melancholy. The peaceful Elegy may have been written as a personal and private tribute to Elgar’s great friend August Jaeger.

Henry Mancini – Baby Elephant Walk
Written for the 1961 movie “Hatari!”, the orchestral music accompanied a scene where three baby elephants are led to a pool to bathe. Always a good choice for four ponderous double basses to perform, it was arranged by bass paedagogue George Vance.

Piano Guys Medley
Among classical-pop crossover groups, the Piano Guys are perhaps the most popular. Their primary medium has been YouTube, where their videos, noted for high production quality, regularly score millions of views. They include creative renditions both of pop and classical music, as well as original compositions, typically scored for a combination of cello and piano. This medley includes portions of Over the Rainbow, Simple Gifts, Arwen’s Vigil, Code Name Vivaldi, and Beethoven’s Five Secrets.

Piano Guys – Nearer My God to Thee
Sarah Adams’ hymn is alleged to have been played by the string ensemble as the Titanic sank. The pop version for nine cellos was arranged by James Stevens and is heard on the “Christmas Cello” album.

Karl Davydov – Hymn
Another of Russia’s star nineteenth century cellists, Davydov’s prestige was such that his 1712 Stradivarius cello was passed down to cellists Jacqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma. In 1876 Tchaikovsky and Davydov were both candidates for the post of Director at the St Petersburg Conservatory, but Davydov was awarded the position. He was also active as a composer, and produced a significant repertoire for both ensemble and solo cello. This lesser-known work shows a strong hand in a lower tonal register.

Aquarela do Violoncelo
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony and arranged by their cellist Blaine Desjardins, this medley mixes some of the most recognizable cello music. It provides a brief tour of the compositional history of the instrument, ranging from Bach’s cello suites to John Williams’ score for the Star Wars franchise, and ending with the famous Aquarela do Brasil.

Heitor Villa-Lobos – Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
Villa-Lobos’s most famous piece holds a prestige it arguably deserves, showcasing many characteristics of his style. This is already clear in its title, indicative of the influence of both his South American homeland and JS Bach on his work. The nine Bachianas Brasilerias represent a fusion of those worlds, conceived to evoke both the abstract courtly dances of the Baroque and the Brazilian folk tradition. The lyricism of the Aria calls to mind the former through its intimacy, complimented by intricate polyphony reminiscent of the great Bach. Conversely, the Danza has a strong rhythmic push that works equally effectively at establishing Villa-Lobos’s Brazilian heritage.

Traditional – The Cossack’s Song
This arrangement by cellist James Barralet uses woodblock for distant trotting horses, whip sounds, slapping the cello and squeaks for the sound of birds, while much use of pizzicato imitates the Russian balalaika.

Notes by Zain Solinski