I. Barcarole (con variazioni)
III. Quasi l'ultimo tango
IV. Il modo grave e lirico - Epilogo
Aulis Sallinen has written a generous number of concerto and concerto-like works in his half-century as an active composer, and for a variety of instruments. Yet a constant in his output of orchestral and chamber music has been his fondness for the sound of the cello.
He first indulged it in the Variations for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 5, in 1961; for solo cello there’s the Elegy for Sebastian Knight, Op. 10 (1964), and a solo sonata, Op. 26 (1971); Metamorfora, Op. 34 (1974), for cello and piano was followed by a concerto, Op. 44 (1976), and Chamber Music III, Op. 58 (1986), for cello and strings; and From a Swan Song, Op. 74 (1991), for cello and piano has now been capped by this sonata, Op. 86. Sallinen’s Sonata per violoncello e piano was written in 2004, to a commission from Naantali Music Festival, and first performed there on 10 June 2005, by Arto Noras and Ralf Gothóni, its dedicatees.
For all that it inhabits four movements, Sallinen’s Cello Sonata is a compact work, with links between the movements which suggest that the composer sees the work as a single span. The opening set of variations begins with the cello unfolding a wistful melody over an archetypical rising-and-falling barcarolle figure in the piano; the instruments soon swap these patterns before a dialogue exchanging the barcarolle shape, the music evoking rolling movement over moonlit water.
The second-movement ‘Serenata’ picks up the acciaccatura heard towards the close of the ‘Barcarola’ – one of several unifying features in the work – and its rhythms have more than a hint of the tango to become explicit in the scherzo. At several points the cellist’s commentary on the reflections of the piano take the form of strummed chords, often marked ‘pizz. quasi chitarra’ in the score – another archetypical gesture: is Sallinen deliberately suggesting that the cello is serenading the bashful piano?
In the last bars the scherzo tries to break out ahead of time; but for the Last Tango in Naantali we have to wait for the third movement to generate a little energy. Tango first came to Finland in 1913 and soon became the national muzak; it is frequently encountered in Sallinen’s music, too, but with the characteristics that make Finnish tango distinct, not least a fondness for minor keys and march-rhythms.
In the finale, marked Il modo grave e lirico, the piano offers commentary on the cello’s impassioned monologue, which makes much use of the three-note up-and-down figure that opened the scherzo. For most of the movement the instruments stick to their own guns until the epilogue, when the piano resorts to more orthodox accompanying figures, sometimes recalling the rocking barcarolle figure, until it barks out a brief series of chords under a held note in the cello; there is nothing more to be said.
Martin Anderson © 2007