Cello Concerto

  • September 9, 1999
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Commissioned: BBC for Paul Watkins

Premiere: BBC Proms, August 12, 2001; Royal Albert Hall; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Paul Watkins, cello; David Robertson, conductor




Duration: 24’


Publisher: Schott Helicon Music Corporation (BMI)



Picker’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was reworked from an earlier suite for cello and piano, though two of the movements began life as songs. There is ample precedent for musical recycling of this type, of course; both Schubert and Mahler, for example, incorporated songs into instrumental and orchestral works. The concerto was commissioned by the BBC, and first performed at a London Proms concert in August 2001 by cellist Paul Watkins, with David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.


The first movement, ‘Not even the rain’, was originally a song setting of e.e. cummings’ poem ‘somewhere I have never travelled’ (better known, perhaps, by its last line: ‘nobody, noteven the rain, has such small hands’). Even if one were not aware of its origin, however, it would be possible to discern a vocal quality in the music, with the cello playing the role of the poet/lover – rapturous and alluringly eloquent.


The scherzo-like second movement, ‘Brief journey’, stands in stark contrast to the lyrical fluidity of the first. Here, the orchestral texture is dominated by winds, brass and piano, all of which play with sharp-pointed accents throughout. The cello initially contributes to the orchestra’s acerbity, but soon becomes more defiantly songful.


A few sets of slow triplets and other odd-shaped rhythmic ‘dissonances’ catch briefly in the music’s fast-moving gears, as if to halt its progress, but the pace barely slackens. About three minutes into the movement, the piano enters and takes on a more prominent role, leading to a long stretch where cello and piano play a wild, syncopated cadenza – a reminder of the work’s origins as chamber music.


In reworking the third movement of And Suddenly It’s Evening into the third movement of the concerto, ‘Those we loved’, Picker transferred most of the primary melodic material to the solo cello, which again puts the orchestra in the role of the antagonist. This is particularly apparent when the rhythmically free-floating melodies (now in the cello) are heard against the orchestra’s powerful, repressive grip.


The finale, “Lament’, also originated as a song – a setting of W.S. Merwin’s poem ‘Place’, from the collection Rain in the Trees – and it too would eventually find its way into Thérèse Raquin as the ‘dove’ aria. Indeed, these two songs act as a complementary set of lyrical bookends. Both are impassioned and dark, though the cello’s melody in the first movement is more conversational; in the finale, the note values of the solo line are longer, the gestures more expansive.


The music is open-hearted yet intimate, even secretive. And in this way, Picker’s Cello Concerto recalls Elgar’s. The structure of Picker’s work is entirely original, however, with two rather violent scherzos – one sharp-edged, the other grimly deliberate – framed by a pair of wordless songs. These songs take on new, more overtly dramatic meaning in their operatic context, of course, but here in the concerto their inarticulateness speaks with equal force.


© Andrew Farach-Colton

The Independent (London, UK)Annette Morreau

"[Picker's] moving and attractive Cello Concerto, a Prom's commission receiving its world premiere, is the first major orchestral work by this gifted American composer to be heard in the UK. Picker has been written about in this country on account of his staged operas, so it comes as little surprise that his cello concerto should have found inspiration from the written word. Of the four movements, Picker regards the first and last as songs without words. Words, however, are intimately associated: the solo cello line of the first movement follows closely the rhythm of ee cummings' not even the rain, as Paul Watkins demonstrated in a particularly delightful pre-concert talk between soloist and composer. The two inner movements are inspired by the shortest of poems by Quasimodo.


"Picker has reworked an earlier suite for cello and piano giving it a new shape and blessing it with fine instrumental colouring that never swamps the soloist. Picker describes himself sardonically as a "collapsed 12-tone composer" and indeed the work is rooted in tonality beginning almost where Elgar left off. In its first and last movements, Picker preserves an Elgarian sense of melancholy, opting for broad lyricism which allows the soloist ample room to do what the cello does best: to sing. Contrast is provided by a bouncy, syncopated Stravinskian-influenced second movement where the soloist hardly draws breath. Watkins excelled, tenderly nurturing the lyricism yet powerful in virtuosic moments of double-stopping and passage work. It appears grateful to play; a valuable addition to the cello repertoire."



The Times (London, UK)Hillary Finch

"After the interval, a taste of the post-avant-garde in the world premiere of Tobias Picker's Cello Concerto. The BBC had commissioned an American composer whose lyrical facility and meticulous craft ensure there is never a wasted or worn note to be heard. The work was played with affectionate understanding by Paul Watkins. Picker's style fuses long-limbed melody with rigorous contrapuntal repartee: sometimes Stravinsky's spirit is fleetingly honoured, sometimes that of Elgar."

For cello and orchestra