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New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
04/19/2018 -  
Pietro Locatelli/Carlo Alfredo Piatti: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major
Igor Stravinsky: Suite Italienne
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suite for Solo Cello No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Cello in D Minor, Opus 40

Andrei Ionită (Cellist), Naoko Sonada (Pianist)

N. Sonada/A. Ionită

“When we play an unaccompanied Bach suite we may compare ourselves to an actor in Shakespeare's day. We create scenery (which then was non-existent), through the power of declamation and suggestion. So in Bach. The cello is a single voice, yet so voices have to be suggested.”
Pablo Casals

The young Rumanian cellist Andrei Ionită gained worldwide fame when winning First Prize at the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition, but even before this iconic musical landmark, he had been garnering international awards. And no wonder! While he began last night’s recital with a work most unsuited to his particular skills, he easily showed himself an brilliant technician and a steady, if not singular artist.

The program was deftly divided. The first half consisted of two jaunty works–neither of which were by the original composer. The second half consisted of a pair of more serious works, both in the ultra-serious key of D Minor.

The opening supposed Cello Sonata by Pietro Locatelli was not by this 18th Century violin virtuoso at all. Locatelli had written a series of violin sonatas which were so popular in the 18th Century that 137 years later, cello virtuoso Carlo Alfredo Piatti cannibalized two fast movements from one sonata and a slow movement from another. To this he added virtuosic measures, more variations, and a flashy coda. In this, he was in the tradition of Mahler, Webern, and Rachmaninoff. (Even Johann Sebastian Bach gave his own touch to contemporaries Vivaldi and Marcello.)

How should a cellist approach this augmented Locatelli? Some would go all afire. Without a moment’s delay, those opening measures swing through glistening measures, with passion, concentration and fervor.

Or at least some cellists play it that way. Mr. Ionită gave an unhappy surprise. He was conservative, relatively slow, precise, bouncing off the strings with alloyed delight. For those of us accustomed to Yo-Yo Ma’s glistening sounds (as in this week’s Don Quixote), Mr. Ionită produced a dark, deep cello sound. In fact, next to pianist Naoko Sonada’s bright piano accompaniment, one felt little affinity.

After this bloodless opening, the slow movement was played with more feeling. As for the Locatelli/Piatti finale-variations, those dark sounds were outweighed by faultless technique (Piatti was always the showoff!). If one wasn’t totally endeared to the cellist, one had to admire his quantum-precise fingering.

The following Suite italienne was twice-removed from the original 18th Century composer Gionbattista Pergolesi. First by Stravinsky’s surprisingly near-literal transcription for his Pulcinella, and then by the cello suite. Even more surprising, this master of orchestration confessed to being advised by cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom he played it on a concert tour.

If a composer has to make a living by performing (like the late Mozart), this is the kind of music which does it. One might not accept Mr. Ionită as the utmost charmer for this charming music, but he and Ms. Sonada were finally emotionally together, passing the technical hurdles without a second thought.

After the intermission, the two continued with one of the “undiscovered” Bach masterpieces, the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. As Stravinsky and Piatti had uncovered 18th Century masterpieces, Pablo Casals found these works, performed them (with more audience amazement than acclaim) and they are now part of any–and every–cello artist’s repertory.

If Mr. Ma plays them with light dance-joy, if Rostropovich played them as dark and heavy mysteries, Mr. Ionită essayed the dance movement as...well, as dances. As a solo cellist, his initial gravitas became a slightly-accented but always mathematically pure essay into the deeper layers of Bach’s mind.

The opening produced those most complex lines to the point where one felt he was playing a complex equation. One was reminded of Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s “Pythagoras alone has seen beauty bare.” The following wild ride of 16th notes led into a sarabande where Mr. Ionită came totally into his own. This was rich, deep, unadorned beauty, and was played as such. Listening to this, one understood immediately why Mr. Ionită is such a star on the international stage.

The final work was the early Shostakovich Cello Sonata. Mr. Ionită shone, but Ms. Sonada produced the most bedazzling octave passages by the composer.

The music itself needs a cellist able to manipulate between the rippling opening (including a schmaltzy second subject showing the composer’s penchant for popular song) to moto perpetuo allegro into a Largo predicting the most profound Shostakovich.

Had he found the “Jewish music” which he later adored? Or were these more Russian feelings? Whatever the answer, Mr. Ionită played the measures with Hebraic dark tones. This leading to a finale showing the young composer–with the young artists–at their debonair best.

Harry Rolnick



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