The first ideas for the Cello Concerto occurred and were notated on 20 August 1965, when I was teaching at Wardour Castle Summer School. Much of the work on the piece was done over that same autumn and winter, and resumed in the summer of 1966. Composition of the last thirty bars and the scoring of the whole were completed between April and July 1969. The work was commissioned by the BBC and given its first performance at a Promenade concert on 26 August 1969, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davies; the soloist was Zara Nelsova. More recently, Moray Welsh has become associated with the concerto, in performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Andrew Davis conducting), the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, (under Christopher Seaman), and tonight’s orchestra and conductor, with whom he recorded it in July 1978.
The piece is best approached as a large-scale sonata movement. The theme heard in the opening bars on the lowest register of the cello is used in many forms throughout. As the cello rises from the depths it is gradually overtaken by an orchestral climax (A). Then the primary allegro melody, an exuberant, declamatory one, is heard on the solo instrument before a second orchestral tutti (B) tightens up the tempo. A new, more dancingly rhythmic figure is briefly heard on the cello before a third and more prolonged orchestral climax. When this has fully subsided, the cello plays the first theme of the secondary group (C), of inward character and in short detached phrases. Its further development, and the statement of the second theme of the second group (D), are accompanied mainly by small instrumental groups of woodwind, and there are also cadenza-like passages before and after the return of the initial secondary theme.
The ensuing vigorous orchestral passage serves instead of a development section proper: it culminates in a new orchestral melody of ecstatic character, and after its climax is followed by a long cadenza for the cello. The orchestra re-enters at full strength for the moment of return. Throughout the recapitulation orchestra and soloist exchange their previous roles, and for all the foregoing material is heard in different characters. For instance, the orchestra now has the primary melody that was first heard on the cello, although the soloist comes in almost immediately to develop it. On the other hand, a phase first stated by the soloists in a lyrical way is now made the basis of an orchestral section, which develops it in energetically contrapuntal character.
The soloist’s next entry is with the theme originally heard on the orchestra at (B). But instead of leading directly to a faster section as before, this theme is now extended rhapsodically. There is a proliferation of decoration and trills from the cello; underneath, the violas can be heard playing an extended version of (D). This orchestral melody rises higher and higher, until at last it is lost in an orchestral climax similar to that at (A). This is interrupted by trumpet fanfares heralding the return of an element by now, perhaps, felt to be overdue: the ‘second subject’; itself (C), in a more fully scored, triumphal version.
The music suddenly cools: the cello plays a calmer, reminiscent version of (D); muted trombones state once again the tritone E flat – A natural which has run through the whole work: and in a spare, cadenza-like coda passage Elgar’s Cello Concerto is briefly quoted, in order to pay more than one homage, before the tritone figure climbs up the various registers of the cello and the music dies quietly away.