Monday, December 10, 2018

A Cello Solo for December’s First Friday


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Call me a Grinch, but any concert in December that’s without Yuletide aural tinklings has a built-in plus for me, and when that concert includes a masterpiece I should know better in a genre that I ought to be more familiar with, plus a couple of unknowns, then that cements the deal.

The young New York-based ‘cellist Ben Capps opened the last “First Friday” recital of 2018 with J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C major for Solo Cello BWV 1009, his overall timing for it of just on 20 minutes being achieved by the omission of a few repeats, which thus allowed the inclusion of his own Fantasia and the Suite for Solo Cello by Gaspar Cassadó.

Oil portrait, said to be of J. S. Bach, from
c.1715, shortly before the time he is thought
to have composed his Suites for Solo Cello.
His account of the Bach’s opening Prelude was characterized by smooth, un-effortful legato playing, immediately showing his mastery of his instrument but perhaps not digging as deeply into the music as some.

The succeeding Allemande was likewise a little characterless, but as Mr. Capps progressed through the remaining four movements, he seemed to warm to his task. More light and shade, with increased dynamic contrast, penetrated the Courante, while the Sarabande felt truly recreative, with each note valued to the full and a more elastic pulse enabling a contemplative and eloquent unfolding of the music.

This more serious mood carried over into the pair of Bourrées that comprise the fifth movement, where Mr. Capps’ approach might best be described as soberly joyous, with a good deal of variety in his attack. Interestingly, he played the final Gigue attacca, right on the heels of the first Bourrée’s da capo—a sudden outburst of exuberant energy that, coupled with much relishing of his instrument’s bass sonorities, brought the work to a rousing conclusion that by now completely belied any impression of facelessness lingering from the outset.

Ben Capps.
Ben Capps described his own Fantasia as a kind of pupil-challenging ‘cello étude, and indeed it proved to be a study in shifting patterns of fast rising and falling arpeggios which, together with slowly shifting harmonies, gave to these ears an effect akin to minimalism. The arpeggios eventually decelerate and, after briefly giving way to a wide-ranging melodic line, return before arriving finally at a point of stasis in the high treble. It was an interesting and enjoyable piece, not outstaying its welcome at just five minutes.

I temporarily mistook the other unknown for the Portuguese composer/conductor Álvaro Cassuto, who has done sterling work recording the music of several of his countrymen, notably the marvellous symphonies of Joly Braga Santos, but no—Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966) was a Spanish 'cellist/composer of a couple of generations earlier, whose 1926 Suite for Solo Cello seems to be by far his most well-known composition, achieving a roster of no less than 21 recordings in the current ArkivMusic listings.

Gaspar Cassadó.
Unfortunately time constraints necessitated the omission of the central Sardana movement, but there was no noticeable sense of anything essential missing in terms of overall architecture or emotional progression in Mr. Capps' account of what thus became a diptych.

The Preludio-Fantasia was rhetorically wide-ranging and rhapsodic (thank you Wikipedia for confirming that this was a Zarabanda), while the Intermezzo e Danza Finale slowly spun into another dance (a Jota) after an affectingly hesitant opening replete with haunting guitar-like plucked chords.

With the benefit of now having listened to a couple of complete performances on YouTube, the Suite clearly has far more depth, variety and resonance than merely “three Spanish dances”, and I hope Mr. Capps on another occasion can give us the whole work. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, December 7, 2018. Images: Ben Capps: performer Facebook page and Moskowytz Bayse; Bach: Wikimedia Commons; Gaspar Cassadó: Wikimedia Commons.

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