Wen-Sinn Yang

Adrien F. Servais - Works for cello & orchestra

CD-Cover: Wen Sinn Yang - Servais

Wen Sinn YANG (Cello) | Münchner Rundfunkorchester | Terje Mikkelsen (cond.)

Audio sample: Servais - Souvenir de Spa, op. 2

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Servais - Paganini of the Violoncello

"The greatest artist on the violoncello produced by our century" - this was the headline in a Cologne newspaper following the sudden death of Adrien-François Servais (1807-1866).

In his lifetimes, fellow musicians as Berlioz and Rossini used to call him "the Paganini of the cello" by regard to his revolutionary style of cello playing, which reached new heights never imagined before.

Servais' legendary Stradivarius

About 1840, Servais came into possession of a cello which had been crafted in Cremona by the legendary Italian violinmaker Antonio Stradivari. Today, the instrument is kept in the Smithsonian Collection in Washington - and many music lovers consider it as the best cello in history. Servais' music for cello was partly inspired by this unique instrument.

Servais' music for cello

His romantic works for cello are distinguished by charm and sophisticated irony as well as by extreme technical demands - such as those in the Souvenir de Spa, op. 2, a fantasy from 1844.

The young Pablo Casals rendered breathless and speechless a snooty Servais successor in the post of Brussels cello professor when playing it in an audition - and Wen-Sinn Yang confirms:

"Tchaikovsky's highly virtuosic Rococo Variations are child's play by comparison."

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Full liner notes:

Overflowing with virtuosity, purity of sound, and intensity of expression: Adrien François Servais (1807–66)

"The greatest artist on the violoncello produced by our century." This headline appeared in a Cologne newspaper following the sudden death of Adrien-François Servais. Berlioz and Rossini had praised their fellow musician as "the Paganini of the cello" even during his lifetime. A monument in noble Carrara marble was erected in honor of Servais as the very first representative of his artistic guild on the main market square in his birthplace in Halle, Belgium.

Might it be that Schiller’s wistful words from the prologue to Wallenstein ("Art is hard, its praise fades; / posterity winds no garlands for the mime") have no validity at all for the composing instrumentalist? On the contrary. Of course apart from knowing circles formed by string aficionados. Unlike his contemporaries Paganini, Chopin, and Liszt, Adrien François Servais today is unknown by name even to the most enthusiastic fans of classical music. Not to mention the compositions that this master cellist penned to display his talent, tailoring them for himself and his nimble fingers. Unfortunate, certainly, that he has been all but forgotten, for as a traveling star virtuoso he was once just as celebrated as the musicians named above, and he indeed may be mentioned with them in the same breath.

Servais performed the service of revolutionizing the technique of cello playing (like Paganini before him on the violin and Liszt contemporaneously on the piano) and elevating it to previously unimagined heights. The more relaxed bowing method developed by him made possible long chain staccatos such as those in bars 46–56 in the introduction to Souvenir de Spa op. 2, arpeggios in a fast tempo such as later in bars 311–27, and legato spiccato in up-bow and down-bow – illustrated exemplarily in the Variation II & Finale of Le Désir op. 4. Long double-stop passages in the thumb position as in the Variations I & II and the Finale of the Grande Fantaisie op. 6 and trill chains in the highest registers as at the end of the first movement in the Cello Concerto not only attest to the attention paid by him to the left hand as well but also led to a significant expansion of the overall tonal range of the instrument.

Servais above all accomplished something that nowadays is a matter of course but then was absolutely innovative: the combination of a virtuosic bowing method with a virtuosic left-hand technique. In addition, it is remarkable how Servais repeatedly ennobles simple melodies with genial embellishments. In this he is in no way inferior to a Rossini or Chopin.

Servais earned his place in music history for his invention of the metal endpin fixed below the instrument. This invention meant that the violoncello could be handled much more freely and played with the whole body. Before the cellist had held the instrument between his legs and supported it with his calves – which produced a rather cramped bowing motion and, what is more, made it difficult for him to play in the low range. Servais must have been the first cellist who exclusively employed an endpin. He was quickly able to disseminate this invention internationally on his European tours and with the help of some of his students. The advantages were abundantly obvious. His intensive concertizing as a soloist also meant that the cello was emancipated from its role as a mere accompanying instrument. Its complete emancipation to the status of a solo instrument could now no longer be stopped.

In Servais we encounter a personal success story of a special kind. The son of a cobbler who was an amateur violinist, he was originally supposed to become a tailor. His received his first instruction in violin from his father. After his exceptional talent had come to the attention of a noble patron, the music-loving boy was instructed by a professional violinist. A concert by his future teacher Nicolas Joseph Platel became a key event: at the age of twelve Servais decided to give up the violin for the cello. In 1829 he became Platel’s assistant at the Brussels Conservatory and during the following years conducted the Harmonie in Halle. He served concurrently as a member of the orchestra at the Royal Opera House in Brussels. At the end of 1833 he debuted as a soloist in Paris. In 1835 he made his way to London. In 1838 he set off on his first Russian tour.

During his thirty-five-year career Servais presented more than ten thousand concerts, most of which met with enthusiastic acclaim, and performed before many crowned heads. It was probably around 1840 that the Russian Princess Tatyana Vasilevna Yusopova presented him with a Stradivarius violoncello of 1701 that has been known as the "Servais cello" ever since and currently is housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1848 he was appointed to the post of professor at the Brussels Conservatory, where he educated a great many young cellists and in this way founded the high reputation of the Belgian cello school.

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Decades later another "celestial" and later "cello god," the Catalan Pablo Casals (1876–1973), got word of this great esteem. He actually had wanted to study in Brussels under the conservatory director François-Auguste Gevaert, but Gevaert was already so old that he refused, simply stating, "I’m not accepting any more new students." On the next morning Casals was supposed to play before the conservatory’s cello class, which was led by Edouard Jacobs, a very highly respected cellist. Jacobs had a very self-complacent manner that the young Casals, who could hardly speak French, could not stand.

What happened on the next day was vividly described by Casals in his memoirs, Joys and Sorrows: Reflections, published in 1970: "When the class had finished, the professor – who until then had given no sign he had noticed my presence – beckoned to me. ’So,’ he said, ’I gather you’re the little Spaniard that the director spoke to me about.’ I did not like his tone. I said yes, that I was the one. ’Well, little Spaniard,’ he said, ’it seems you play the cello. Do you wish to play?’ I said I would be glad to. ’And what compositions do you play?’ I said I played quite a few. He rattled off a number of works, asking me each time if I could play the one he named, and each time I said yes – because I could. Then he turned to the class and said, ’Well now, isn’t that remarkable! It seems that our young Spaniard plays everything. He must be really quite amazing.’

The students laughed. […]. ’Perhaps,’ he said, ’you will honor us by playing the Souvenir de Spa?’ It was a flashy piece that was trotted out regularly in the Belgian school. I said I would play it. ’I’m sure we’ll hear something astonishing from this young man who plays everything,’ he said. ’But what will you use for an instrument?’ There was more laughter from the students. I was so furious I almost left then and there. But I thought, all right, whether he wants to hear me play or not, he’ll hear me. I snatched a cello from the student nearest to me, and I began to play. The room fell silent. When I had finished, there wasn’t a sound."

Jacobs immediately changed his tone and asked Pablo to come to his office, where he flatteringly told him that he was very talented; he would accept him and even guarantee him that he would obtain the conservatory’s first prize. Almost too angry to speak, Casals left the office. He did not want to remain one second longer in Brussels. Already on the next day he packed his suitcase and set out for Paris with his family.

The extreme technical demands of the fantasy Souvenir de Spa op. 2 from 1844 with which the young Pablo Casals in his time rendered breathless and speechless a sarcastic Servais successor to the post of Brussels cello professor are also confirmed by Wen-Sinn Yang, the interpreter on the present recording: "Tchaikovsky’s highly virtuosic Rococo Variations are child’s play in comparison. Long chain staccatos and endless octave passages: even today only a few have a command of this … this is a hard-to-handle travel souvenir of the Belgian spa in the Ardennes that Servais has served up to us here."

It was only with compositions of their own that the star virtuosos of the first half of the nineteenth century were able to demonstrate the technical standard reached by them. Many thus composed not so much by inclination but out of necessity. As a cellist and composer in personal union, Servais primarily followed the dictates of his public’s taste. And his public loved the opera, in which bel canto stars like Maria Malibran, who was only a year younger than Servais, made their happy appearance. Consequently, the cellist-composer introduced the melodies of the best-known opera arias to the numerous salons and concert halls.

In the Andante cantabile of his Grande Fantaisie after Motifs from the Opera "The Barber of Seville" by Rossini op. 6 (1847), for example, it is not difficult to hear Count Almaviva’s cavatina "Ecco, ridente in cielo" from Act I. Here the solo cello imitates the tenor part complete with all its intricate coloraturas. The more than one hundred works composed by Servais for his instrument also include four veritable concertos. The first, in B minor op. 5, was published in the same year as the "Barber" Fantasy – though only in the version for cello and piano. The orchestral version continues to the present – as so often with Servais – to await its publication.

The bubble bath of romantic feelings displayed is not without charm and teasing irony and is outdone from the standpoint of sheer madness of playing technique only by Le Désir op. 4. This Fantaisie et Variations brillantes sur la Valse de Schubert representing the culminating point of every Servais recital is based on Schubert’s "Trauer Waltz" lasting hardly forty-five seconds, a very popular ländler during the nineteenth century. Both Robert Schumann and Carl Czerny wrote variations on it. Servais also joined this circle of declared Schubert admirers in 1844. This composer’s oeuvre involved an early form of what was later called salon or coffeehouse music. Of course on the very highest level! It is precisely here that one should in no way deny oneself one’s hedonistic desire for another brilliant and sparkling calorie-rich musical cream cake!

Richard Eckstein | Translated by Susan Marie Praeder