Conversations between ages and talents set the tone for a solo recital by WA Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Rod McGrath at the Grove Library on Sunday.
Two cellos framed the discourse: an 1850 Duke model discovered in an English family estate in the 1990s; and a replica fashioned by McGrath’s former WASO colleague Andrew Tait, whose career as a luthier continues in retirement.
The characters of the cellos were revealed first in Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 and then in Britten’s Suite No.1 — another homage by a modern artist to a classic of the genre.
Bach’s familiar Prelude was richly resonant on the Duke, looping phrases spilling in a mellow flow unhurried any haste beyond the confines of the library.
A series of historic dances unfolded as a metronomic, meditative Allemande graced the evening air, exploring tone and tempo.
Lifting the pace for a Courante, McGrath was as unhurried as the measure, exuding energy without urgency.
A Sarabande’s slower, stirring strains morphed back to meditation, lilting and sighing through elemental expression and timbre before fading to close.
Two Minuets to follow teased memories of the Prelude down to the final phrase, before launching the Gigue, a flailing finale.
The Duke’s softer tone lent itself to solo playing, McGrath said, though it had suffered after he migrated to WA and WASO in 1997.
Tait, then a double bass player with the orchestra, offered a solution by rebuilding the instrument using glues better suited to the drier climate.
Tait also craftily mapped every detail of the Duke and McGrath commissioned the “Son of Duke”, with a brighter, more powerful tone suited to bigger ensembles, offering more resistance and range.
“With age, instruments do lose some of their volume,” Tait explained.
Proof was in the playing as McGrath attacked the more complicated Britten suite, with an internal dialogue he found within the music to mirror the conversation between composers and luthiers, and a step change in technique.
A more cursive style emerged with a hint of whimsy, exploiting the high harmonic range, then sighing in a melancholy, contemplative air; a sustaining vibrato holding the room.
Pizzicato and plucked figures then exploited the resistance in the instrument, fading to pathos and passion in broad bow strokes and a hint of menace in bellicose beats, gradually receding.
Darkly mysterious chords, taut and probing, suggested a fate beyond the mundane; then muted in lullaby, moving towards a more humane voice.
Finally, fleeting runs gave way to frenzied bowing in a Moto Perpetuo as if in tribal tribute to Bach, drawing down to ever richer harmony and a sudden cadence.
Energy released at the close triggered a shower of applause which McGrath rewarded with Saint-Saens’ Swan, a sentimental favourite drawing a sigh across the audience to close out an aesthetic journey.
The Cappuccino Concerts Spring Classics series concludes on Sunday, October 31, with cellist Michael Goldschlager and pianist Irina Buevska-Cowell, at the Grove Library from 5pm.