The cello is often described as the closest instrument to the human voice. Guy Johnston shares his unique experience recording Night Seasons by Rebecca Dale - described as a concerto for cello and choir in conversation


Cellist Guy Johnston

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I’m always excited about a new opportunity, particularly getting to collaborate with living composers on a new work. Recently, I’ve worked with and recorded works by Matthew Kaner, Dobrinka Tabakova, Xiogang Ye and Rebecca Dale – an eclectic mix of musicians and styles! 

Playing for living composers comes with a different set of challenges to performing works by composers who are no longer here. They can be demanding, but also flexible. I remember saying to David Matthews that surely performances could never live up to the ideals of the composers. But David said, on the contrary, he loves hearing what different performers bring out of his works. Sometimes things happen that even the composer hadn’t imagined. 

I was asked about recording the piece Night Seasons for cello, choir, and orchestra, by Rebecca Dale in early 2023. I’m a little wary of taking things on early in the year because it means one has to keep focused during Christmas – a time for family, reflection and recuperation. However, this work sounded like something unique and special, and I couldn’t turn it down. 

Unfortunately, it was impossible to meet before the day of the recording, but we thankfully had lots of correspondence via email, which helped to keep things fresh! It was quite an adventure getting to know the work with little notice and experiencing it with the wonderful Philharmonia and Tenebrae Choir for the first time on the day we recorded it. 

I know this work is particularly personal for Rebecca. It was written during Covid, which was a challenge in itself, and during the same period she found out about her late father’s terminal illness as well as the unexpected death of one of her closest friends. I’m reminded of the story behind the recently completed concerto by Herbert Howells which I recorded. Howells had lost his young son to polio, and he often returned to the work because it meant so much to him. It was the same for Elgar who lost friends during the First World War. His Cello Concerto became a sort of Requiem. Often these desperate times stimulate deep creative yearnings and in turn produce some of the most profoundly moving works.

Playing for living composers comes with a different set of challenges to performing works by composers who are no longer here

Whenever a new piece of music arrives, there’s always a sense of anticipation to see and hear what it sounds like. The thing that struck me most when I first saw the Night Seasons score was how much high playing there is. It has three slow meditative movements – 1. Nox Perpetua, 2. When It’s Darkest, A Prayer For The Dawn, and 3. Sanctus. Rebecca has taken a simple theme for each movement through which there’s a sort of ‘darkness-to-light’ structure. While it isn’t a conventional concerto, the first movement includes a hair-raising cadenza. It is the most virtuosic part of the work with chordal interjections from the orchestra towards the end. I was concerned about the ensemble in this section, but it sounds like we got it!

The middle movement is dedicated to a composer friend of Rebecca’s who sadly committed suicide during the time she was composing this movement. The third movement has an extremely high passage for the cello at the end of the Sanctus. Some of our early communication centered around whether this section should be in harmonics or stopped.

Rebecca said, ’I think it’s my favourite moment of the whole piece. We had some to-ing and fro-ing about whether it would be possible so high up, but I wished for it to have expressive intensity.’ In the end, I was convinced by Rebecca to play the notes stopped despite some being located above the fingerboard, which was more expressive than playing harmonics and just as Rebecca had imagined. ’That’s a really important slow and meditative section before the final climax of the movement.’ 

It’s essentially a concerto for cello and choir and a conversation between the two. The spotlight is not always on the cello, unlike most concertos, and I think Rebecca manages to navigate the dialogue between the choir, cello and orchestra admirably. There are moments when the cello is in the foreground and at other times less so. Ralph Kirshbaum used to say a phrase that works quite well in collaboration, ’You’re first among equals here.’ I think this is part of the balancing act of the piece, to give everyone their say. 

The sound engineers set me up in between the second violins and violas, and I enjoyed being inside the body of the ensemble rather than out on a limb like usual. Rebecca was in another room and a sort of disembodied voice during the sessions. She says, ’As a composer, while I have quite specific ideas, one has to step back a bit and leave it to the musicians to take it on. It’s where my job ends and yours begins. I’m grateful you were able to explore the piece and what we discovered in a short space of time, and it was such a privilege to have you play.’ 

Having been a chorister, I’m always drawn to choirs and often play with them. It’s a cliché, but the cello really is the closest instrument to the human voice with its range and sonorous qualities, and when I perform with a choir, I’m often reminded of vocalising rather than playing the cello. I was excited to be recording Night Seasons on a recently acquired Stradivari cello that I’m now fortunate enough to be playing. It came into my hands a few weeks after our daughter, Jacquetta, was born two years ago. 

I remember after the recording session that I had to head straight to the hotel at Heathrow Airport, where I met my wife and daughter, ready for an early flight back to the States where I currently have a position at Eastman School of Music. But it was all worth it in the end. I might also add that I feel honoured to be on the same disc as one of my cello heroes, Steven Isserlis.

Rebecca Dale: Night Seasons featuring Steven Isserlis, Guy Johnston, Tenebrae, Philharmonia and conductor Nigel Short will be released digitally on 8 March 2024 on Signum Classics. Find out more here.

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