Cello Concerto (Sullivan)
The Cello Concerto in D major is Arthur Sullivan’s only concerto. It was premièred on 24 November 1866 at the Crystal Palace with August Manns conducting and was one of Sullivan's earliest major works.
There are three movements:
At the concert at which Sullivan’s Irish Symphony was first performed earlier in 1866, the Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti played the Schumann Cello Concerto, which prompted Sullivan to compose a new concerto for Piatti. None of the cello concertos frequently played today had been composed before the 1860s. The Dvořák and Saint-Saëns cello concertos were yet to come, as, of course, were the famous twentieth century concertos of Elgar and Shostakovich; concertos from earlier centuries such as those of Vivaldi and Haydn had fallen into neglect. Even the Schumann, composed sixteen years before Sullivan’s, was far from a regular repertoire piece at the time. A work written by the rising star of English music, played by a famous virtuoso such as Piatti, might therefore have been expected to take a firm place in the repertory, but it was played only thrice more during the composer’s lifetime.
The concerto was never published, and in 1964 the manuscript score and orchestral parts were destroyed in a fire at Chappell's music publishers. However, the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras had conducted the work eleven years previously, and in the 1980s he made a reconstruction of the concerto, with the aid of the Sullivan expert David Mackie. A copyist’s manuscript of the solo part had survived (in the Pierpont Morgan Library in America) which had indications of some of the orchestral scoring. The reconstructed work was given at an LSO concert at the Barbican, London, on 20 April 1986. Julian Lloyd Webber was the soloist, and Mackerras conducted. The same performers recorded the work for EMI immediately afterwards. It was also recorded in 1999 by Martin Ostertag with Klaus Arp conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2000 by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Mackerras conducting. The piece has also been performed several other times since its reconstruction.
The proportions of the concerto are unusual: the first movement – customarily the longest and most symphonically structured movement of a concerto – plays for only three and a half minutes. The other two movements run about seven minutes each.
- The Allegro opens with a characteristic burst of energy, but then it ‘simply fades out just when one is expecting the second subject.’ It segues into the next movement, by way of a brief cadenza.
- The slow movement, a sweetly songful andante, was praised at the time of the première, and it was suggested that it should be transcribed for church organ. The gentle mood makes way, halfway through the movement, for a few assertive strophic bars before the mild andante theme returns.
- The finale returns to the energetic vein of the opening of the concerto. Once the brisk mood is established Sullivan brings back the exuberant opening theme of the concerto, before a gentler interlude followed by some energetic but not conspicuously tuneful passagework leading to a lively variant of the opening bars of the finale and, after some further bars of passagework, a conventional closing flourish.
The orchestration and the string writing for the soloist show Sullivan’s habitual grasp of the capabilities of all instruments, but few commentators have found the actual themes memorable. The Gramophone review of the 1986 recording concludes: ‘Never does the work build up to any really satisfying effect, however much the themes may initially promise’.
- Jacobs, Arthur: Arthur Sullivan, OUP, Oxford, 1986 ISBN 0-19-282033-8
- LSO programme note, 20 April 1986.
- Higgins, Tom: Notes to EMI recording, CDM 7 64726 2
- Young, Percy M: Sir Arthur Sullivan, J M Dent & Sons, London 1971 ISBN 0-460-03934-2
- Discussion at the G&S Discography
- Article on the cello concerto
- Clip of Mackerras & Lloyd Webber performing the concerto
- Review in The Times, 10 December 1866