ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 11 , 2007
Vol. 41 - No 41

Bach to Berio and Beethoven too

Reviewed by Arun Dias Bandaranaike

The Sunshine Charity (for Children) in association with the British Council, Colombo, presented an evening with Rohan de Saram, the celebrated cellist on Tuesday, February 27, at the British Council auditorium in a bid to raise funds for their on-going activity in Trincomalee. The venue lent itself admirably to the warm intimacy in which a solo ‘Cello performance could thrive; a ‘conviviality’ with the audience was winningly wrought, both in musical and verbal contexts.


One also had a rare glimpse of and sentient camaraderie with a Guarneri violin cello from Cremona, about 308 years in age! The audial response such a noble instrument can engender is itself cause of wonderment, and with de Saram coaxing it with subtlety as well as occasional vehemence could only leave one in awe. Completely fulfilling intellectually and with a heightened sense of the deeply musical.

De Saram’s programme was varied and touched the range of music created for this instrument. Beginning with one of the six compelling unaccompanied ‘Cello Suites’ by Bach he explored the length of the musical tradition of 400 years with aplomb and with zealous intent and included works by Locatelli, Kodaly, Benjamin Britten, Luciano Berio, Gaspar Casado and of course Beethoven with some engaging vignettes by Korsakov, Gabriel Faure and Saint-Saens thrown in at the end. Bach’s Sixth Suite was also included midway.

Thanks to the monumental work by Pablo Casals, the Bach Suites for unaccompanied Cello has entered the musical vernacular of the 20th century, and the story has it that even in advanced age the Maestro began every morning with a solemn recital of these Bach suites, in his reckoning far more than mere Etudes but musical statements which he (Casals) had continuously attempted to unravel and interpret successfully all his life. Be that as it may, de Saram’s controlled arco and concentrated distilling of the essence was deeply satisfying.


In similar vein the Antonio Locatelli Sonata from his “Art of the Violin” was about virtuoso technique, and this opus was transposed for the Cello from the violin score by Rohan de Saram himself. Even though the fingering, which is punishing for a violinist but is perhaps more ‘manageable’ for a cellist, the perpetual motion of playing all of the strings in a series of arpeggios compounds this formidable tour de force. Technical accomplishment was subservient to the nature of the music, the canto, and remains the factor, which describes best the consummate quality of this cellist’s artistry.

The same profound tendency distinguished the playing of the Allegro of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello in A major (as opposed to Sonata for Cello and Piano!) Opus 69. The warm, sumptuous opening broken triad in D major played in the middle register assayed stentorian-like releasing the remainder of the fifteen overwhelmingly gorgeous notes of the recurrent theme which quickly resolve and assert the strength of the A major-ness in this piece, a typically Beethoven ‘surprise’ displayed therein with the equally inspired and intuitive playing of Ramya de Livera-Perera at the piano in full cognizance of her role as collaborator, not accompanist. One might easily have arrived at the erroneous conclusion Ramya and Rohan have been playing thousands of times together, when in fact they had no more than a day or two in rehearsal!! Ramya’s convincing musicianship was as much a reward of the evening’s concert, as was de Saram’s outstanding talent as an interpreter of the classical repertoire and the modern realm of contemporary composition.


What was intended as a Sri Lankan premiere of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza XIV” for ‘Cello, has in fact been performed and recorded by de Saram some years ago. Clearly there were limitations imposed by the circumstances at this particular auditorium, not least inaudibility of the subtleties in the piece. As was explained by the dedicatee of the piece, Berio had consulted with de Saram over the cyclical rhythm employed in the Geta Bera pattern in the Kandyan tradition. This sequential rhythm was assigned to the left hand, tapping percussively on the fingerboard sans bow. The specifics of that, was not heard well. However, even though there was no clearly discernible tonal centre in this contemporary composition, haunting melodic interventions were played in tandem with or alternating among harmonics derived from the top strings, bowing below the fingerboard and close to the bridge, quirky frequencies achieved with exceedingly rapid glissandi; in between, the sequence of the tapped rhythms recurred. Admittedly, such an opus is as demanding of the player as the strictly structured pyrotechnics of Locatelli. Still, the whole, perhaps, was not as securely coherent as one would have wished for in this absorbing work.

In among the ‘lighter’ selections was a delightful although rarely heard piece by Gaspar Casado, de Saram’s master-teacher. This was a dedication to his Maestro Pablo Casals. In that too, Ramya at the piano came up trumps and wholly captured the feisty nature of this Iberian flavoured offering, which was not unlike the kind of celebratory pieces by de Falla. The generosity of both of these performers must gratefully be noted, for, indeed, the concert was long and was decisively made to delight!

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.