Guy Johnston (cello) & Tom Poster (piano), 26 November 2015

Programme notes

Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord No 1 in G, BWV 1027: J S Bach (1685-1750)

1. Adagio
2. Allegro ma non tanto
3. Andante
4. Allegro moderato


Until the seventeenth century viols were the favourite string instruments for domestic music-making, but they were gradually overtaken in popularity by the more agile and expressively varied violin. Although the bass viol, or viola da gamba (literally, ‘leg-viol’), hung on longer than other members of the viol family, it was already considered old-fashioned by Bach’s time. Nevertheless he used it on a number of occasions, not least to provide some expressive obbligato parts in his two great Passion settings.

Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are thought to date from the late 1730s or early 40s, though only the G major Sonata can be dated at all accurately, since it is the only one for which Bach’s autograph score survives. The harpsichord parts of all three are fully written out. In other words they are not continuo parts – consisting of a bass line with the harmonies indicated by figures – but ones in which the right hand, and occasionally the left as well, has an important share in the melodic writing, resulting in a trio sonata-like texture.

The sonatas, which Bach does not appear to have conceived as a set, draw on various earlier works for other instruments. The G major Sonata is a transcription of the Sonata for two flutes and continuo, BWV1039, in the same key. The opening adagio, a flowing piece in triple time, is followed by a lively concerto-like movement. The third movement is comparatively short, and the sonata ends with a brisk allegro marked by vigorous three-part counterpoint.

Perseus: Charlotte Bray (born 1982)


Oxford-born Charlotte Bray studied at the Birmingham Conservatoire with Joe Cutler, and the Royal College of Music with Mark-Anthony Turnage. She attended the Britten-Pears Contemporary Composition Course in 2007, studying with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Magnus Lindberg. The following year she attended the Tanglewood Music Centre, Massachusetts. As Composer-in-Residence at the Oxford Lieder Festival, 2011, she composed the song-cycle Sonnets and Love Songs for baritone Roderick Williams. Her orchestral work At the Speed of Stillness was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2012 and premiered by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder, who also recorded it for the NMC label. Perseus was given its premiere by Guy Johnston and Tom Poster on 25 September this year during the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival.

Charlotte Bray writes: ‘Guy Johnston commissioned this piece to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his cello, with the idea that the piece would reflect in some way the history of the instrument. The composer took the cello maker’s name, David Tecchler, and translated the letters into a musical language to form the backbone of the work harmonically. The harmonic structure of the first main section (after the introduction), for example, follows the letters of his name : D-A-v-i-D t-E-C-C-H(B)-l-E-r, (ignoring the small letters which don’t literally translate into notes).

The work also takes inspiration from the phenomenon known as a ‘Super Massive Black Hole’. Captivating images have recently revealed that the Black Hole in the centre of the ‘Perseus' galaxy, a constellation in the Northern hemisphere, dominates everything around it by propelling an extraordinary amount of radiation and energy out into the surrounding gas. The strange paradox is that an explosive feeding Black Hole is the brightest source of life in the galaxy, greedy and luminous. I am fascinated and motivated creatively by this unseen and unknowable force. Exploring various imaginary states, this abstract source found its way into the piece.

The introduction contains three contrasting short musical kernels, each of which are explored and expanded upon in the main body of the piece. The cello line is underpinned by a low piano drone, and (in the second and third phrases), a high accented chord. This flows into a delicate section, sparsely written, as if the notes are distant stars in the galaxy far away. Growing out of this, the composer describes the section following as ‘White Heat, luminous’. An intense rhythmic and repetitive bass line thunders away, punctuated by high stabbing clusters. The sustained glowing cello line leads to fast outbursts. A high cello melody sings throughout the third section, the lyrical centre of the piece. It feels intense and gritty above the powerful chordal piano accompaniment. The forth and final section is deeply calm, a slow reflective end to the piece.’

Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op 38: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

1. Allegro non troppo
2. Allegretto quasi minuetto
3. Allegro


Brahms was passionately devoted to the music of the past: not just his immediate predecessors, like Beethoven (whose footsteps he felt dogging him as he laboured over his First Symphony) and Schubert, but the more remote figures of the Baroque and Renaissance periods. He subscribed to the collected edition of Bach’s works published by the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) founded by Schumann and others in 1850, eagerly awaiting each new volume as it appeared, and his study and performance of much early music left its mark on several of his own works, including the E minor Cello Sonata.

Three movements of the sonata were written in 1862. The finale was added three years later, but Brahms, always rigorously self-critical, removed one of the earlier movements, an adagio, leaving the work in its present form. It is dedicated to the Viennese amateur cellist Josef Gänsbacher, who had been largely responsible for Brahms’s appointment as the conductor of the Viennese choir, the Singakademie, in 1863.

The sonata has been described as a journey backwards in time. In it, Brahms makes contact with the last of Beethoven’s cello sonatas (Op 102 No 2, in D), but also reaches back further: to the 18th-century minuet in the second movement, and Bach’s The art of fugue in the finale.

The opening allegro non troppo (did any composer indicate ‘non troppo’ – not too much – as often as Brahms?) is marked by his love of dark colours, with rich, full, piano textures and a cello part that makes powerful use of the instrument’s lower register. Here, too, there is a connection with The art of fugue, in a passing similarity between the first movement’s broad, opening theme and that of Contrapunctus 3 from Bach’s work. A new idea brings a more strenuous feel to the music, before the first main section ends in dreamy, major-key lyricism, strongly suggesting a lullaby, and which returns to close the movement.

The second movement is a delicate, dancing piece, but in Brahms’s marking – Allegretto quasi minuetto – the ‘quasi’ is significant. It is not a minuet as such; it simply resembles one, with the music’s wry, hesitant feel removing any hint of 18th-century pastiche. The central trio section is more like a waltz, with a kind of subdued flickering figuration on the piano suggesting a sublimation of the gypsy music that Brahms loved so much.

The concluding fugal allegro pays homage both to Beethoven, whose own last cello sonata ends with a fugue, and to Bach, with a fugue subject based on that of Contrapunctus 13 from The art of fugue. Its driving energy is tempered by episodes that are gentler in character, even occasionally verging on the playful, but it is the gruff vigour that has the last word in the quicker final section.

© Mike Wheeler, 2015