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One End of the Spectrum

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
02/27/1999 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: 12 Variations and 7 Variations on Themes from Die Zauberfloete, Sonata #5, Sonata #3
Janos Starker (cello)
Shigeo Neriki (piano)

The rich sonority of the cello has been presented in many styles from the controlled elegance of Piatigorsky to the controlled intensity of Ma, from the on the edge wildness of Rostropovich and Du Pre to the totally out of control emotional sloppiness of Casals. At the other end of the spectrum from the heart on sleeve school stands Janos Starker, whose Magyar surname serves as an apt description in English of his playing philosophy. Over two nights Starker and fellow Indiana University professor Shigeo Neriki presented the complete works for cello and piano of Beethoven in uncompromising versions that, in this second concert at least, sacrificed beauty of tone and power of conception for a dry, academic reading that reduced this fine music to the world of the finger exercise more reminiscent of Czerny than his great contemporary.

Starker is a cellist of international renown and one of the last living links with the golden age of the Liszt Ferenc Academy in Budapest. As a teenager he studied at this now crumbling (physically, not musically) institution while faculty members included Leopold Auer, Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok. It was Starker who premiered the cello version (written simultaneously) of the posthumous Bartok Concerto for Viola and Orchestra and he has been concertizing in the United States since the 1940's. Appearing for over 20 years with Mr. Neriki, he is still at his advanced age an active performer and pedagogue. His approach to these cello and piano pieces, which run the gamut from the banal to the sublime, is so severe, however, as to leave this reviewer cold (although the 92nd Street Y audience heartily disagreed).

The Sonata #5 puts the lie to the conception that no one was interested in Bach before the Mendelssohn revival. Beethoven had been studying the keyboard works of the old organist and produced this anachronistic music to exploit the possibilities of Baroque counterpoint in a modern idiom. Starker's thin, nasal tone seemed to work reasonably well in this context, although I always prefer a hearty timbre in my cello music. The elongated melody of the Adagio was shaped expertly but still played dryly as dust and remained ultimately uninteresting, reminding me of the unornamented vocal lines in now fashionable versions of Couperin and Rameau operas, said to be "authentic" but actually just dull (and often substituted as a cover for the performer's lack of genuine ability). The program annotator wrote of the Brahmsian intensity of this piece, and he is right, but there was absolutely no sense of this sexual tension in Starker's flat (not in pitch but in musical values) reading.

The two sets of variations on Mozart themes are problem pieces at best. The first, the 12 Variations on "Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen", were probably not written by Beethoven at all and the second, 7 Variations on "Bei Mannern welche Liebe fuehlen", are simply ditties tossed off for a quick commission for the then burgeoning home music market (everyone has to eat). But for the sake of completeness the duo presented these bagatelles. The first set of variations is actually for solo piano with cello obbligato and so featured Mr. Neriki's bland conception, not much of a relief from his Hungarian mentor. I don't think even those two famous Haitian passport holders Horowitz and Piatigorsky could have made this music more than marginally interesting.

The masterpiece in all this scribbling is undoubtedly the mighty Sonata #3, one of the greatest chamber pieces that Beethoven wrote. The pair was sensitive enough to close with this extraordinary piece, but continued to disappoint by presenting a bland version, technically correct I suppose, but lacking the fire of the great duos of the past (I heartily recommend the Ma/Ax recorded version which always makes my spine tingle). Even in the remarkable Sturm und Drang melody of the first movement Starker did not release his obsessive control of the strings even a hair, insisting on playing with no vibrato and no sense of the underlying musicality. It was as if he were fighting hard to demonstrate a strictly Classical technique, not allowing the persistent presence of Romanticism to enter his temple of purity but, like all zealots, his approach was ultimately unsatisfying.

I would have liked to have enjoyed this evening and kept hoping for some relief from the icy wastes of these stubborn performances but, alas, this was not to be. Even in the Adagio of Schubert played as an encore, no emotion broke through (really difficult to accomplish in this most lyrical of composers) and I went home frustrated. True unto itself, this academic approach is justifiable, but to what end? I prefer the music, thank you.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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