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Cello Works: Marc Migó’s ‘Cerdanyenca’

They Care if You Listen:

Works for Cello and Piano by Migó, Rachmaninoff, Ysaÿe, and Gershwin

Antoni Pizà

Th[e] composer expends an enormous

amount of time and energy―and, usually, considerable money― on the creation
of a commodity that has little, no, or negative commodity value.

The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music.

The performers shun it and resent it.  Consequently, the music is little performed.

Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen” [1]

Babbitt’s (in)famous assessment of new music in 1958, seems appropriate to me―albeit in the opposite sense―for this compilation of cello and piano works by Marc Migó (Barcelona, 1993), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), and George Gershwin (1898-1937).  Babbit, to be sure, was right:  high modernist new compositions, in 1958 at least, were neither popular among audiences nor many performers.  Fast forward some decades, enter postmodernism, and we are experiencing a different situation.  A great deal of new concert music is accepted, performed, and enjoyed by a sizable audience.  And many performers, contrary to Babbitt’s bleak assessment, far from shunning new works, are commissioning, performing, and recording the works of their generational colleagues, and, surely, this recording is a case in point. This album indeed includes an ambitious cello and piano sonata by Migó and several other works by established composers, all performed with stunning virtuosity by cellist Mark Prihodko (Place/Date) and subtle musicality by pianist Anna Keisermann (Place/Date).  They do certainly care if you listen, and this recording confirms their commitment.  They care, true―and we all care, too.

In a note to his Sonata per a violoncel i piano “Cerdanyenca,” Marc Migó briefly explains that the work―ambitious, as I said, long, and relentlessly chuck-full of virtuosity―was commissioned by cellist Philip Shegog, whose only special request from the composer was to find inspiration in his heritage.  Migó wrote the first movement, “Al Cap del Ras,” (At the Cap del Ras) moved by that flabbergasting natural lookout (Cap del Ras) with panoramic views of the Pyrenees mountains.  The second movement, “La dona de l’aigua” refers to another natural site in the Pyrenees named after the legend of The Waterwoman, a mysterious beautiful woman, a creature of the water, who eventually marries a man on the condition that her origins should never be revealed… well, no spoilers here, suffice it to say that Migó’s music does reflect the fairytale, supernatural quality of the story.  After an “Intermezzo and Cadenza”, the third movement, where unabashed virtuoso Mark Prihodko in this recording shows an absolute command of his technique, the final movement, “Excursions” returns to the evocation of the landscape of Northern Catalonia and the Pyrenees, and more specifically the region of La Cerdanya.  Hence the subtitle “Sonata Cerdanyenca.”

However, if Migó’s music is nurtured by the landscape and the weekend family outings from his native Barcelona (deep down, he acknowledges, he is a “city kid” raised in an urban environment), the music has no references, as one could perhaps expect, to the folk traditions of Catalonia, or Spain, for that matter.  Migó’s musical language also stays away from radical experimentalism and keeps at all times tonal poles, evaded here and there, but always there to offer a sense of movement and continuity.  The music is pitch-centric, true, meaning that pitch or tone, and the resulting melodies and harmonies and the rhythms that deliver them in time, are primordial in his soundscape.  The score is, nonetheless, strategically idiomatic:  the writing exploits essentially all that the cello can do; the instrument is used as a “cello,” not only a vehicle for abstract pitches that could be sounded by any other instrument.  The listener thus encounters dozens of sound effects that are essentially unique to the cello or at least to the string family.  To name a few, there are frequent glissandi, pizzicati, col legno, tremolo, con sord, harmonics, etc.  These are not gratuitous effects.  In the second movement, for example, the composer writes on the score sul tasto, which some treatises call flautando, i.e., flute-like, ethereal, ghostly… just like the story’s fabled Waterwoman that inspired this music.

The intensity of this “Sonata Cernadenyenca” is contrasted with the delicate poignancy of Rachmaninoff’s youthful Morceaux de salon, Op. 6 (1893).  Originally written for the violin, the first piece, “Romance,” starts with a memorable theme for the violin supported by sinuous arpeggios by the piano.  Later, the music intensifies by adding double-stop octaves on the violin and a dramatic piano part.  The “Danse hongroise” that follows, an exoticist fantasy, contrasts in tempo―it is marked Vivace―and it is, certainly, an effective virtuoso, show-off piece, but not exempt from smart winks such as the piano seemingly echoing a musical motif from the main theme of the “Romance.”

With Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonate pour violoncelle seul, Op. 28 (1924) we enter a different world, with somber tones, clouded skies, as it were, and the restrained structural beauty of the J. S. Bach cello solo works.  Ysaÿe clinches, to be sure, to the contrapuntal and rhapsodic traditions of the German baroque, with tints of the harmonic innovations of French impressionism, and the technical sway of the Franco-Belgian school (think of César Frank and his violin sonata, which incidentally was dedicated to Ysaÿe), rooted in virtuoso writing and abstract music.  The listener is confronted here with whole-tone scales, an exploration of the harmonic possibilities of the tritone, the extensive use of suspensions and notes tied over bar lines, and a high degree of chromaticism.  If the tempi seem unstable (like that metaphorical cloudy sky mentioned above), it is because there is indeed a wide range of speed variations with frequent accelerations and decelerations.

Migó’s “Romança melòdica,” the second movement of a full-fledged work titled Tres romances (2020?), is a welcome respite after Ysaÿe’s solo ultra-serious piece.  In music, the term romance generally refers to an instrumental piece of lyrical, delicate character.  Migó’s work can certainly fit this definition.  The triptych pays homage to the great Catalan composer and violinist Joan Manén (1883-1971), but this second movement, “Romança melòdica,” takes its cue from Ukrainian composer Mykhailovych Skoryk (1938-2020) and one of his most popular works, Melody for piano (1959).  Migó, in an original, utterly personal manner, elaborates a full piece on the celebrated, heartrending five-note motive to deliver a scoop of northern melancholy and heartbreak.

The emotional range of this recording, however, is broad.  For its rainbow-like character we have to thank its creators (Migó, Prihodko, and Keissermann, as well as the other composers).  As if there was still any doubt about their pledge to music and beauty and emotion, if one is still uncertain that they do care, the recording concludes with the well-known George Gershwin’s Three Preludes (1926), originally for piano, arranged for the violin by virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, and adapted here for the cello.  Jazz?  Certainly.  Latin music?  Sure.  Syncopation, off-beat accents, blue notes?  No doubt.  But above all, joie de vivre, the pure joy of playing and listening―the rewards of really caring.

[1] Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if you Listen,” High Fidelity, 8/2 (February 1958), pp. 38-40.  As it has been noted many times, the provoking title was assigned by the editor, not the writer, whose essay only expresses the “societal isolation” of the avantgarde concert music in 1958.