Where to begin with a mammoth work such as this? First, a brief introduction to the composer: David Feurzeig is an American composer equally versed in popular music as he is in classical music. Many of his works incorporate parody, satire, and humour. A particular favourite of mine is his solo piano piece Stride Rite, which joins themes from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring with ragtime piano stylings reminiscent of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton.
Sonata for Solo Cello takes a more serious approach than some of Feurzeig’s other works, utilising conventions of the past in tandem with innovative techniques that show off the cello’s myriad timbral varieties.
The sonata opens with a beautiful majestic prelude that, if pressed, I would have to say brings to mind (perhaps vaguely) the music of Bach's first suite’s prelude. The connection to Bach goes beyond the opening notes however. I am not exaggerating when I say that the satisfaction of playing Bach’s G major prelude is mirrored throughout Feurzeig’s sonata.
This majestic opening gives way to a second section which carries the marking ‘like distant bells.’ At first glance, this section’s adventurous usage of harmonics looks daunting, but with a bit of patient practise you will notice how the cello naturally responds to these overtones and rings in a way previously unexplored before Feurzeig.
For movement two we put the bow down and play everything with hammer-ons and pull-offs. This technique, which has been employed in guitar music for ages, is relatively new for cello and takes some time to master. Once the technique has been honed enough, you can start to feel this music as a brisk ¾ courrente. I suggest practising this movement super slowly and with the bow so you can focus on intonation. When you switch to practising with pizzicato, phrasing will be much easier to sculpt.
The third movement brings us to the notturno, which acts as the fulcrum upon which the other movements balance. This movement utilises some lovely ethereal writing that switches between artificial harmonics and fingered notes. The melodic intervals seem disjunct at first because of the wide distances between them (a diminished 9th and minor 13th) but because of the natural construction of the instrument and the way our strings are tuned, we can actually play these in one seamless legato bow. This movement very effectively evokes the imagery of the night’s sighing insects, the dim moon, the possum’s scratch of the earth.
The second half of the sonata begins with a saraband. Although the tempo has many marked rubato inflections, it needs to still retain the characteristic of a dance. Where the courrente is a whirlwind of notes, the saraband is a lyrical song. It is easy to imagine people dancing to the rhythm and responding to the subtly nuanced pushing and pulling of the tempo. Another fun thing to explore in the piece is how Feurzeig has written in a displaced downbeat.
We typically expect the strong beat to occur on beat one, but Feurzieg moves this strong beat to beat two and writes the whole of the movement with this displacement.
To conclude this movement, the melody gradually disappears into the highest range of the cello’s C string touching upon all of the harmonics on the way up the neck.
It seems perfectly fitting to start the finale gigue with an explosion and Feurzieg does just that. This movement presents two primary sections: the first has a sort of moto perpetuo feel with a relentless driving triplet rhythm; the second is a harmonic chorale of sorts. Working slowly with the metronome is the key to polishing this movement. The first section, which is a pedal point C# marcato triplet rhythm with a chromatic melody picked out around it, has occasional interruptions that showcase the cellist’s ability to play chords and blindingly fast scales. When executed with finesse, the effect is a virtuosic tour de force. After the initial exposition of material, Feurzeig brings back little inklings of the prelude. These consonant reminiscent bits grow in length until it seems like they might take over only to be thwarted at the very end by the gigue’s rougher material.
Feurzig's composition challenges the boundaries of how the cello is played and opens up the imagination for the future of our instrument.