CD-booklet essay by Anssi Karttunen

Toccata Classics CD TOCC0171

The idea for the Mystery Variations came from Kaija Saariaho and my wife, Muriel von Braun, who in 2010 wanted to organise a joint 50th-birthday present from the composers I have been working with through my professional life. They decided to write to a number of them, inviting each to compose a single variation on the Chiacona per basso solo by Giuseppe Colombi (1635–94). For many years I had been playing the Chiacona in my recitals, often commenting that for me it represents the beginning of the history of my instrument, the other end of that history being what my friends are writing today.

The Mystery Variations thus became a collection of 31 variations by as many composers, from twelve different countries, on one of the earliest known pieces written for the cello. It offers a unique look at how many very different ways there are to write for the cello today, a sort of instantaneous snapshot of the world of cello at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

It is fascinating to follow in these Variations how many ways there are to vary and react to the simple Chiacona. Some composers – Kaipainen and Saariaho, for instance – took the rhythmic or harmonic skeleton and covered it with a new musculature; some – Cohen and Hakola – took the architecture and filled it with completely new furniture; others – Neikrug, Matthews and Lindberg – quoted passages, or mixed the theme with the musical letters of my name, in the last instance even making it into a duel between the two; and others yet – Globokar, Tuomela – seemingly ignore Colombi altogether. No two are alike.

The title Mystery Variations stems from the fact that while the composers were writing their variations, they didn’t know who else had been asked. I was also asked to premiere them without knowing what I had promised to play. The title turns out to be very fitting as the set as a whole mysteriously works in almost any order. The variations seem to feed from one another and the whole becomes larger than its parts. I have chosen an order for the CD which seems to work best when heard as an uninterrupted set of variations. Mysteriously, they also just fit on one CD, with only a few seconds’ space left.

Giuseppe Colombi seems to have been born in Modena, between Parma and Bologna, in 1635: a manuscript recording his death in 1694 (on 27 September) states that he was 59 years old. He was a court violinist from 1671 and two years later became capo del concerto degli strumenti; in 1674 he was named sottomaestro of the court cappella, a position he held until his death. In 1673 he was beaten to the post of maestro di cappella of Modena Cathedral by his bitter rival, Giovanni Maria Bononcini (1642–78), whose two sons would also became prominent composers. With the help of his courtly patron, Duke Francesco II, Colombi became maestro di cappella of the Church of the Madonna del Voto instead, eventually succeeding Bononcini at the Cathedral in 1678. Apart from a hiccough in 1689–90, when bad debts led to the temporary abolition of the cappella, Colombi remained in this post, too, until his death.

Colombi’s Chiacona – the manuscript of which is kept at the Biblioteca Estense in Modena – was originally written in F; I have transcribed it a tone higher because in Colombi’s time an early and larger form of the cello – which he calls simply basso – was tuned a whole tone lower than in today’s practice, an approach known as Bolognese tuning.  Double-stops, chords and open strings would not be comfortable in the original key on a cello with modern tuning.

The first of the Mystery Variations, in the order chosen for this CD, is Anything Goes by Jouni Kaipainen (born in Helsinki in 1956) which follows the texture and structure of the Chiacona exactly but substitutes the theme with one from Kaipainen’s score to Hämäränmaassa (‘Twilight on Earth’ Op. 69 (2004), a ‘musical play’ for children based on a fairy tale by Astrid Lindgren. The next, Polvo (‘Dust’) by Martin Matalon (Buenos Aires, 1958) takes the individual notes of the theme and embellishes them into a very quiet, short, fragmented fantasy; Matalon asks for a metal mute, which produces a sound with an eerily distant quality. The next is Colombi Daydream by Roger Reynolds (Detroit, 1934), who uses the notes of the Chiacona theme in all sorts of combinations of the numbers 5 and 50 – intervals of fifths, quintuplets, five beats in a bar, etc. The Daydream naturally also has 50 bars. Chaconne by Denis Cohen (Coupvray, 1952) follows exactly the structure and rhythms of the Colombi, but changing the notes and harmonies and using a very wide range of playing techniques to distance himself from the Baroque style. Every now and again the flow of the Chaconne is brought to a stop with sudden dissonant chords. bLeuelein by Jukka Tiensuu (Finland, 1948) is a study in various types of pizzicati, slides, chords and resonances. It has the feeling of a slow procession, maybe a passacaglia distantly reminiscent of the notes of the theme and its key of G major.

The Partite sopra un basso by Steven Stucky (Hutchinson, Kansas, 1949) create a shimmering, falling tremolo landscape which one could imagine ‘painted’ over a bass theme that is suggested by the higher textures. At the end Stucky makes a ‘cordial salute’ to Béla Bartók with a quotation from the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Esa-Pekka Salonen (Helsinki, 1958) writes a Sarabande per un Coyote, which he makes into a grandiose fantasy on the rhythmic progression of the Chiacona. He ignores any austere early-Baroque harmonies or the limits of what is comfortable on the cello and projects Colombi through a post-Busonian, even post-Elgarian, magnifying glass. Something to Go On by Edmund Campion (Dallas, 1957) is a colourful collage of several modern styles, passing from spectral to minimal music within seconds before moving on to a slightly warped quote from Colombi; it is completed by a distant quote of ‘Happy Birthday’.

In his Ciacconetta Rolf Wallin (Oslo, 1957) cleverly inserts the notes of the theme into a mix of slowly sliding arpeggios, into the middle of which he sets one of the faster passages of Colombi, twisting it into a virtuoso dance. Pablo Ortiz (Buenos Aires, 1956) takes Colombi for a ride in a tango machine: his Paloma vacillates between cautious nostalgia and controlled melancholia. Paavo Heininen (Järvenpää, 1938) contributes Triple Antienne , one of the more substantial variations, in three parts: ‘Assonance’, ‘Consonance’ and ‘Resonance’. The first section seems like a free introduction to the central ‘Consonance’, which brings in a theme resembling the Chiacona, repeating it each time a little more distantly and leading to the fast ‘Resonance’, which is an intricate play with little motives from Colombi. Still and Flow by Anders Hillborg (Sollentuna, 1954) opens with an extremely slow, high, chromatic melody, ‘Still’, which leads to ‘Flow’, reminiscent of the Bach cello suites. The combining of two dynamics within the same texture complicates the apparent simplicity of ‘Flow’, creating an atmosphere which at first seems straightforward but is mysteriously unsettled.

Fred Lerdahl (Madison, Wisconsin, 1943) writes a set of mirrored variations in his There and Back Again, which takes a trip through musical history: starting from the Baroque, it progresses phrase by phrase through the centuries, passing all the way to the twelve-tone and microtonal before gradually returning to the beginning  In ... se sillan... Veli-Matti Puumala (Kaustinen, 1965) presents a piece premised on extremes, contrasts, colours and relentlessness. In six connected sections, for a long time it seems not to want to relate to Colombi, but towards the end one realises that it has been moving closer and closer to the theme, without ever completely giving in to it.

50 notes en 3 variations by Pascal Dusapin (Nancy, 1955) is a miniature of three parts and exactly 50 notes: it starts with a pizzicato variation which fragments the Chiacona theme, moves on to a meditation on colours and contours and finishes with a wash of colour from a long C natural down to a long C sharp. Colombi Variation by Kimmo Hakola (Jyväskylä, 1958) is, like much of his music, a crazily extroverted fantasy breaking down any barriers of genre, style and received ideas of what is acceptable. In his Chiacona– after Colombi Tan Dun (Si Mao, Hunan, 1957) makes a cultural transformation typical of this composer in turning a strict quote of the theme into a Chinese melody – even the cello sounds like some ancient instrument and the word ‘Chiacona’ shouted by the cellist becomes part of some old ritual. Tiny Colombi by Marc Neikrug (New York, 1946) combines in the theme of the original with the musical letters of my name, An(e)SSI, adding the tongue-in-cheek instruction at the end: ‘continue until finnish’. Locus on Colombi’s Chiacona by Joji Yuasa (Koriyama, Fukushima, 1929) is a short variation of twelve-tone ascents and descents across the entire register of the cello, stopping on the notes of the theme. Arietta (after Colombi) by Ryan Wigglesworth (Yorkshire, 1979, making him the youngest of these composers) is a beautiful improvisation-like song, which starts by quoting letters from my first name.

Drammatico  by Colin Matthews (London, 1946) is the only one of the variations to have a part for electronics. The electronic part consists of multiple synthesised cellos playing one by one all the notes of the theme on top of one another in a very low register while the real cellist races through anxious virtuosic passages, which start with the interval A–E flat, again derived from my name. Kaija Saariaho (Helsinki, 1952) follows, in her Dreaming Chaconne, the harmonic progression of the Colombi with trills, tremolos, glissandos and natural harmonics, creating such a wonderfully rich sound-world that one barely notices the constant underlying presence of the Chiacona. The Preludio e Ciaccona by Ivan Fedele (Lecce, 1953) is another extremely virtuosic piece, constantly scuttling here and there. He divides the scale into sixth-tones, making the fast passages even more mysterious. Vinko Globokar (Anderny, 1934) writes about his Idée Fixe thus:

The right hand of the cellists is injured and in a sling, he can only play with his left hand. In this piece – which wants to be virtuosic and modern – the voice of the cellist introduces an ‘Idée Fixe’. This originates possibly from the time the cellist first encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The ‘Idée Fixe’ may be passing, silent, or even obsessive, to the point of endangering the control and mastery of the performance.

The Variation libre et sombre by Gualtiero Dazzi (Milan, 1960) creates a haunting and passionate atmosphere through very simple slow progressions, following the Chiacona at a distance. Tapio Tuomela (Kuusamo, 1958) responded to the request with Idulla (which means ‘germinating’ in Finnish). It is a short fantasy, perhaps more closely related to his image of my cello-playing than directly to the theme. It starts by simply colouring one note and ends in unpitched tapping of the bow. A Fancy for Anssi by Betsy Jolas (Paris, 1926 – and thus the most senior of the composers gathered here) is in two distinct moods, the first a fast series of reminiscences of fragments from the Chiacona, the second meditatively muted, turning around and even quoting the letters of BACH. These two moods become more and more intimately mixed with each other, finally becoming one.

In A Variation by Miroslav Srnka (Prague, 1975) a quickening pulse progresses into a tremolo through slides, harmonics and double stops. Having reached the tremolo it finally finds the Chiacona stretched into such wide intervals that it appears not so much as a melody as a vast harmonic landscape. Anssimmetry by Luca Francesconi (Milan 1956) is a very free fantasy based on memories of Colombi and Baroque forms, reminding me of the extreme inventiveness of Frescobaldi's wildest toccatas. After an agitated opening it takes the cello through all its paces before eventually hitting to a wall a little too thick to penetrate. Finally, Duello (‘Duel’) by Magnus Lindberg (Helsinki, 1958) is a fight between the Chiacona and the letters of my full name, even using my middle name, Ville. The two ‘melodies’ try to co-exist, but then have it out and finally Colombi wins the battle, the cellist once again becoming just a name in history. In my case the consolation is that, even if my name has to admit defeat, I am the one left playing the Chiacona theme, suggesting that without the cellist Colombi won’t survive either.

© Anssi Karttunen, 2012