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Traditional repertory with a twist

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/25/2017 -  
Robert Schumann: Adagio and Allegro in A flat Major, op. 70
Yves Chauris : D’arbres, de ténèbres, de terre
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 3 in A Major, op. 69
Anton Webern Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, op. 11
Frederic Chopin : Sonata for Piano and Cello in G minor, op. 65

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano)

J.-G. Queyras, A. Melnikov (© Stephanie Berger)

The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov seems to be a ubiquitous presence on New York stages this fall and winter. In November he performed at the 92 Street Y with Isabelle Faust, Wednesday night he played at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, with the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and only 10 days from now, he is to give a solo recital as part of the Peoples Symphony Concerts at Town Hall. Not a bad accomplishment.

It is perhaps unusual to begin a review by mentioning a person often referred to as “accompanist” first and only later bring the reader’s attention to the so-called soloist. It is because in the repertory they chose for their joint recital, only one work was cello-dominated and in two of the big sonatas the piano has almost a dominant role. French born Queyras is of course one of the leading European cellists equally at home with the baroque, classical, contemporary and avant-garde repertory. The influences on his art and activities are diverse: on the one hand, Pierre Boulez, on the other, his work with well-known groups like the famed Arcanto Quartet or in a trio with Melnikov and Isabelle Faust who, as mentioned, just visited New York (performing with Mr. Melnikov).

The program was centered around the idea of presenting new and old. The new was D’arbres, de ténèbres, de terre (Of trees, darkness, earth), a 16-minute work by the young French composer Yves Chauris commissioned by Carnegie Hall. The biographical notes describe Mr. Chauris as one that “stands out among the younger generation of French composers in combining an avant-garde vocabulary with finely tuned ear for instrumental colors, timbres and textures”. The title of the work comes from a few lines of Faulkner’s novel Light in August and its “inarticulate protagonist Joe Christmas”. I guess that the description of the in the program booklet was very accurate. “Like Faulkner’s volatile character, Chauris music seems to exist in a state of suspended animation, sporadically punctuated by violent outbursts. The piece opens with a short, sharp shock that immediately attenuates to a sustained, barely audible subterranean G (the cello’s bottom C-string is tuned down a fourth). In exploring such extremes of dynamics and register, Chauris employs a panoply of special instrumental techniques, including ghostly harmonic glissandos, playing with the wood of the bow, and percussive snaps of pizzicato associated with Bartók. In the final bars the pianist’s softly treading chords are marked “even and without resonance, like a shadow”.

That’s all fine. Yet the reviewer who hears the work for the first time is forced to ask an age-old question that pertains to almost all newly written compositions: does the wealth of material justify the length of the work? And here I would be hard pressed to say “yes”. Alas, the effects described above, regardless of how successful and powerful, begin to sound repetitive, borderline irritating. That being said the way I perceive Chauris’ work I feel that the D’arbres, de ténèbres, de terre or its fragments would serve as an impressive music background for some equally mysterious, dark timbre contemporary film. Its composer couldn’t have known that the venue for which his work was written would not be hospitable to the dynamic markings. Too often the “barely audible” were indeed inaudible on account of the quite noticeable rumble coming from the subway, something that also too often obliterates performances of anything that has a dynamic marking below piano

The work which opened the second half of the program, Anton Webern’s aphoristic Three Pieces for Cello and Piano suffered the same competition with the growl of the subway. I write those words knowing very well that in the past (i.e. for as long as reviews have ever been written), critics proved themselves to be both arrogant and ignorant or at the very least, plain wrong. It is thus quite possible that my not terribly positive remarks about this new work would all too soon prove to be of the qualities just described. I would not be disappointed to be wrong in this aspect.

The Beethoven Sonata in A-major that followed was on the other hand revelatory and that was mostly on account of the pianist. I have previously heard Melnikov’s performances of Beethoven sonatas with violin and in those interpretations, observed the pianist’s same inventiveness and inquisitive mind. Here as before, I was under the impression that both Melnikov – who also specializes in playing historically proper instruments – and his cello partner had very much the same historically informed practices in mind. With the piano part this was demonstrated by a certain “lean” touch and with the cello by a relatively spare use of vibrato. Both artists didn’t shy away here and there from a little, usually subtle alteration of the written score. I was also very impressed by how the usually treacherous matter of balance between instruments was handled by the pianist, who was bold when necessary and restrained when the cello had its leading moments. In the Scherzo, Melnikov was able to achieve the very difficult effect of a sudden drop of dynamics on one note, something that is much easier to accomplish on the old pianos. As in other middle-period works in sonata-form, Beethoven skips in his Opus 69 the traditional slow movement, allowing only for a few lines of gorgeous Adagio (almost reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes), which leads to the finale Allegro vivace, a virtuoso vehicle for both instruments but more so for cello. Thus far this composer has rarely explored either the range or the technical aspects of the instrument. Both players displayed a wondrous sense of abandon, virtuosity, brilliance and sheer fun in that exhilarating piece of writing.

I have already mentioned that Webern’s Three Short Pieces for Cello and Piano had to compete with external noises. This three-minute long aphoristic set led straight into Chopin Sonata in G-minor which was another grand work in the program. There seems nowadays a tendency to lead from one work to another; sometimes it makes sense, at other times it makes the listener wonder what the musicians had in mind. The G-minor Sonata is the last work Chopin published and quite possibly one of the very last works he publicly performed with his cellist friend Franchomme, who was responsible for helping the composer-pianist with the issues of writing for cello (together they wrote another seldom played and formidably difficult composition: Grand Duo Concertante). In this Sonata, correspondingly to the previous two piano sonatas, Chopin utilizes an unusual formal design where in the development section the first-theme material is used almost exclusively and thus doesn’t return in the recapitulation. Both players offered us a thrilling, spontaneous, exhilarating version of the work which, exciting as it was, left me with some question marks, as often that work does. That is not to diminish Melnikov’s success in retaining an almost miraculous sense of clarity in the dense writing of the piano part and in his ability to delineate all the strands of the rich texture. Yet as I frequently wonder: can all the rich harmonic changes and unusual chordal progressions be properly assessed and heard past a certain tempo, which to me in that work almost always sounds too fast, especially in the two outer movements.

Mr. Queyras and Mr. Melnikov offered only one encore: an elegant performance of the first movement of Debussy Sonata in D-minor. Regardless of my little quibbles, it was an impressive recital showing two uncommonly intelligent and versatile musicians presenting a seemingly traditional repertory (filtered through multi-faceted lenses) and making sure that nothing in their playing sounded routine or ordinary. Now it would be nice to hear them with their violinist partner Ms. Faust: perhaps we’d hear parts of the trio repertory as never before?

Roman Markowicz



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