Sonata for Solo Violoncello
by Ng Yu Hng

Brian Patrick Bromberg
20 June, 2023

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Ng Yu Hng’s Sonata for Solo Violoncello is something of an odyssey for the player and the listener. Few pieces take you on the kind of journey that Yu Hng takes you on, and this sonata is a marvellous one. So many modern solo cello works seem overly concerned with playing the instrument in new ways using new extended techniques. While this might be interesting to explore it often seems to be done at the expense of writing quality, playable, cello music. Yu Hng’s piece doesn’t fall into this category, on the contrary the composer’s exploration of extended techniques feels more like the outgrowth of excellent cello writing. There are aspects of ancient music as well as a brief passage based on a Ukrainian choral piece.

The sonata includes moments of bursting light, and crushing darkness often set in close proximity. This is a piece that explores raw, unrestrained emotion in a way that few other pieces come close to. The sonata is constructed in a three movement form with 2 brief interludes which separate the piece into 2 symmetrical halves that total approximately 22 minutes in length. The piece opens with an idiomatic and glistening movement based on the C harmonic series. If you are looking for cello writing that explores all of the natural harmonic possibilities of the cello, look no further. The composer showcases the cello’s ability to play some slightly less common harmonics, and with a bit of practise they can speak quite clearly compared to other string instruments.

After a final harmonic glissando up the C string we come to the first interlude. The first movement works so well because the composer avoids any melodic writing and saves it for the first interlude. This short movement is written in just intonation and is intended to resemble plainchant. It is a great introduction to playing quarter-tones because they are presented in a slow, methodical and melodic way. To practise playing in this kind of intonation I find playing with drone notes absolutely essential. You may also find listening to other pieces written in just-intonation helpful in re-tuning your ear to these new nuances. When played correctly, the effect is very cool.

Examples of just intonation

The ending of this interlude links seamlessly to movement 2 through the held note F. Movement 2 borrows again from ancient music and presents a cantus firmus that starts in the lower range of the instrument and makes its way higher and higher. This cantus firmus is interrupted with various short bursts of angular writing. While this movement takes considerable practise to play smoothly, if you interpret the interjections in a more rubato fashion it isn’t nearly as difficult as it looks on paper. The end of this movement brings us to a peculiar and rather fun to play ‘guitar-like’ section. The original indication in the score is to play the drone note with a five finger roll, but I opted for a tremolo played with a felt guitar pick in my recorded version. This section could be interpreted several ways but most importantly the clarity of the melodic line in juxtaposition to the drone note needs to be maintained throughout.

Interlude B borrows its melody from composer Mykola Lysenko’s piece Prayer for Ukraine written in 1885. It is a simple beautiful melody in D major that seems to fit so perfectly in the sonata between two quite dissonant movements. The movement in itself isn’t difficult to play but, being able to switch modes mentally from the music that comes before it can take some practise.

On the whole, the sonata seems to flow between ultimate optimism and utter hopelessness. When we reach the final movement, marked “harsh, sonorous, molto abrasivo,” it is clear that the composer is working with some very intense emotions. This movement employs the frequent use of very dissonant harmonic intervals set side-by-side plaintive melodic lines that often use quarter-tones. The effect is eerie, and sometimes gut-wrenching. Movement 3 comes to a sombre close gradually while explosions of minor second dissonance are heard in the distance. Yu Hng’s Sonata for Solo Violoncello is a beautiful addition to the cello repertoire and one that is bound to enter the canon. If you’re looking for a solo cello piece that provides a good balance between modern compositional styles and more traditional compositional styles, look no further. Yu Hng’s sonata is tantalising to all open ears!

Composer’s website: https://www.ngyuhngcomposer.com/