Each piece in Nicolas Alstaedt and José Gallardo's programme was re-imagined for the cello as a direct response to existing musical material. The original music either came from a different genre, or was composed for a different instrument. Four significant works in the cello repertoire emerged.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Dvořák's "Silent Woods" was originally composed for four hands at the piano, then transcribed for cello and piano. Dvořák's original title "The Silence" is expressive of the challenge inherent in conveying a sense of silence, using sound. Altstaedt and Gallardo achieved this through a smooth glossy rendering of the piece, seamless legato from the cello making the entire piece sound almost like a single phrase, evocative of stillness.

Altstaedt's seamless legato was also employed to create the effect of uninterrupted singing in Sculthorpe's Requiem for Cello Alone (1979), a remarkable achievement given the extraordinary range of challenging extended techniques required in the work. Demonstrating astounding technical control and intonation, Altstaedt glided through passages of chords blended with pizzicato patterns, double glissandos, and ostinatos maintained under melodies, without creating any jagged or ugly sounds. This was even more impressive given that in this piece the cello is specially tuned with the lowest string providing a lower note than usual. This created unfamiliar harmonic resonances, which Altstaedt controlled beautifully.

Altstaedt's breathing synchronised with the bow so that the effect of singers breathing, then singing, was frequently created. This was particularly appropriate in this piece, as it was composed using the plainsong requiem mass as source material, originally sung by a soloist and unaccompanied choir. Sculthorpe chose the cello for the requiem, because of its expressive qualities, and Altstaedt created an extremely expressive journey through the requiem mass. Quiet sadness in one movement, yearning and internal conflict in another, anguished wailing in another - and yet always 'in character', successfully preserving the sense of dignified mourning in a monastic setting.

Bartók's Rhapsody No.1 was originally composed in 1928 for violin and orchestra, but he also created a transcription for cello and piano. The structure of the piece is based on the Hungarian national dance, the Czardas. Bartók also incorporates melodies and allusions to other dances from the folk music of eastern european countries. Bartók's art is to incorporate and preserve traditional material, while creating his own distinctive music and development of that material.

Folk music is often collaborative, with several musicians improvising together, taking turns to provide their own competing interpretations of the motifs and melodies. This improvisatory element was a strong feature of Altstaedt and Gallardo's interpretation of the work. An atmosphere recalling the uneasy sense of the weather before a thunderstorm was created through unpredictable dynamic balance within the duo, and a disconcerting shifting of style and manner in the presentation of recurring patterns.

Beethoven's set of variations is based on the duet "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. This is a beautiful moment in the opera, when a man and a woman sing together about the power of love to bring out the best in us, sustain life and give us a glimpse of the divine. The corresponding dialogue between the cello and piano was sweet and warm, an intimate conversation echoing the voices of the singers and the meaning of the lyrics of their duet.

Beethoven's set of variations is a masterful work, exploring not just the idyllic vision of happy lovers, but also the implicit drama in the lyrics about how torments experienced by lovers are "sweetened" by love. The duo captured the ambiguity of 'sweetened torment', fearlessly extending the dynamic range into soaring dances, and even snapping the strings against the fingerboard with some violence in a particularly intense moment. Gallardo's lyrical playing in this piece was excellent, and there were occasions when Gallardo's pedalling was so well-judged that it enhanced the resonance of the cello as if he was pedalling for both instruments.