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Desiccation Row

New York
92nd St. Y
04/13/2002 -  
Benjamin Britten: Sonata
Franz Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata
Nicholas Maw: Narration US premiere
Johannes Brahms: Sonata # 2

Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)
Peter Frankl (piano)

Mstislav Rostropovich is in town this week, resting after performing two concerti for each of two successive nights with the BSO and preparing for next week’s Shostakovich festival. Although he might not have been at the Tisch center last evening in body, he certainly was there in spirit as cellist Ralph Kirshbaum opened his recital with the piece which first cemented the relationship of this major instrumental figure with the composer Ben Britten. Slava might have recognized the tune, but the execution was as far from his own personal aesthetic as humanly possible, last evening’s soloist bound and determined to squeeze all of the emotion out of the work before offering it up to a tepidly appreciative public. Americans do not warm easily to British music (cf. my editorial “What We Are Missing” in the archives of this magazine) and they never will if a certain faction of English performers has its way. This bloodless group seeks to deprive both audience and executants of any cathartic experience, leaving only the hollow echo of the manually dexterous left to evaluate. Like the Carnatic singers of India, they strive for complete dispassion.

One would think that a convert to this type of fundamentalism would sharpen up his technique to the quality of a razor’s edge, but even here Mr. Kirshbaum was less than satisfying. Plagued by many squeaks and squawks, his playing is as sloppy as that of a highly communicative artist (say Casals, for example) and yet there is no corresponding level of feeling to mask or excuse his imprecision. Tentative and surprisingly tame, his Britten was ultimately uninteresting, played much more expertly on this same stage just two weeks ago by the young Welshman Thomas Carroll. Kirshbaum’s dryness is of a special character. He is not a member of the anti-vibrato school, like the aptly named Janos Starker, but rather employs an irritatingly wan form of waver that simply sounds nasal. Only in the march section did he remind of the sonata’s dedicatee: his percussive play was indeed reminiscent of the Russian master.

Pianist Peter Frankl was impressive throughout, traversing the Bartokian complexities of the Britten with the assured air of a Liszt Academy graduate. However, the duo committed, for me, the most foul act of the cannibal on my beloved Schubert. Always wishing to be charitable, let’s assert that this approach was designed to emphasize the Classical aspects of the piece, to feature form over content, architecture over meaning, structure over passions. But this was clearly an ode with no joy. Sucking all of the exuberance out of the ”Arpeggione” is no small task; my only confusion is why on earth would anyone resort to such vampirism?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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