Matthew Barley/Cellist

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.

Albert Einstein

HK Gruber Cello Concerto

Much of my last few months, in between and during other tours, has been taken up learning a cello concerto by HK Gruber. It’s an astonishing piece. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for Yo-Yo Ma in Tanglewood in 1989 it has received quite a good number of performances around the world, but not enough, in my opinion, for such a masterwork – maybe because of its quite extraordinary technical difficulties – check this video of Yo-Yo saying he really doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to play it. But it’s worth it. Gruber is a fascinating composer. He says himself that he gets bored with music if there isn’t a beat somewhere pretty much all the time, and yet the music is a long way from simple – he builds textures and piles of rhythms over driving bass lines that are nothing short of psychadelic. He was born in Vienna about 30 years after Mahler died, and you can hear that connection – to my ears it is unmistakably Viennese – maybe a 3rd Viennese School – with sumptuous harmonies, searching melodies and beautiful structure. I’ve known Nali (as Gruber is known to everyone around him) for a long time, and during an evening of good food and wine in Graffenegg in the summer of 2013, he suggested we performed the piece with his Rolls Royce – his affectionate nickname for the BBC Phil, where he is associate composer/conductor – sometime in the future. The piece has not been performed in the UK since 1995, when I played the cello in the orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as soloist and have wanted to play it since then. When the actual invitation came through I got around to looking seriously at the score and got so scared by it that I actually wrote an email to Nali saying I couldn’t do…my finger hovered above the ‘send’ button on my computer, and something stayed my hand. I put it in drafts instead, where it lay for a couple of months until I realised it was too good a chance to turn down, and summoned up the courage and determination to learn it, thoroughly! I have loved most of the process, and hated about 10% of it, when it has seemed impossible…but for better or worse, it’s next week in the Bridgewater Hall on Friday 17th at 7.30, live on Radio 3. But if you’re anywhere near Manchester, do come to the concert, as, heard live, it will be super-exciting. It goes an octave higher than anything else I’ve ever played – my left hand is more than half way between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge – faster passage work, crazier double stopping than I’ve ever come across, and simply the most intense cadenza ever written. And it ends with a pop song (Webernised, to quote Nali) in Bb minor that you will go away whistling. Seriously, it’s catchy.

So that’s it for now, but I will be posting updates through the week as I’m so excited about playing this one.

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