Sol Gabetta / Alexei Volodin
Beethoven, Prokofiev

KKL Lucerne, 2016-01-17

4-star rating

2016-01-27 — Original posting
2016-09-17 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

In the white hall of the KKL (Culture and Convention Center Lucerne) again. This was the second time within a few days, now for a chamber music evening. This concert featured the cellist Sol Gabetta (born 1981 in Argentina, now living and teaching in the Basel area). Gabetta played in a duo recital with the Russian pianist Alexei Volodin (*1977). See also my report on a concert on 2015-10-21 for more information on this artist.  Even though clearly not sold out, the event was quite well-attended.

The evening started off with two compositions from the peak of the Vienna Classical period: two sonatas by Beethoven. The second half switched to the middle of the 20th century, while staying in “Classical” (Neo-Classical, to be accurate) style, with two compositions by Sergei Prokofiev.


Beethoven: Cello Sonata in F major, op.5/1

The two artists opened the program with the Sonata for Piano and Cello in F major, op.5/1 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The sonata was composed 1796. It features three movements:

  1. Adagio sostenuto, 3/4
  2. Allegro — Adagio, 4/4 — Presto, 2/2 — Tempo I, 4/4
  3. Allegro vivace, 6/8

The Performance

I. Adagio sostenuto

It felt as if already Beethoven meant to start the piece by silencing the audience! The sonata starts very soft, interspersed with pauses, such that listeners had to listen carefully and with all their attention in order to hear all of the music (an old teacher’s trick, isn’t it?). On top of the very soft playing, Sol Gabetta used vibrato very selectively only, making the music even more ethereal. That’s an excellent start for this sonata, also immediately dragging listeners right into the music. Both musicians played very short staccato notes, very well matched between the two so much different instruments, Alexei Volodin kept the piano well-guarded. Unfortunately, this latter impression didn’t last very long:

Balance Issues

The Allegro in the second movement — played here in a very fluent tempo — is predominantly f and ff — and that is where the piano clearly dominated the scene (as to be expected with a fully opened Steinway D). Sometimes it  even partly covered the cello. Yes, as a genuine pianist and virtuoso, Beethoven did label his sonatas “Sonate für Pianoforte und Violoncell” (not “Sonate für Violoncello und Klavier“, as indicated in the program notes), i.e., with an apparent preference for the piano. Indeed, in the score, the piano appears to take the lead over major portions of the sonata. The cello often is “just accompaniment”. Nevertheless one should be able to hear it as a true duo partner. A historic instrument (or a replica), or at the very least partially closing the concert grand, would for sure have achieved a much better balance.

II. Allegro — Adagio — Presto — Tempo I

On top of the balance issue, the tempo was relatively fluent. This caused the fast passages on the piano to sound like constant legato, which did not help the transparency. It also prevented a detailed articulation—or at least, it made it hard for the listener to perceive articulation details. The playing in fast parts of the movement was virtuosic on both instruments. Sol Gabetta also played with vivid articulation, also very active in gestures and facial expression. Was she maybe sometimes almost over-articulating in an attempt not to succumb to the piano? On the part of Alexei Volodin, I felt that the interpretation was lacking some agogics. For example, I missed those gradual, subtle hold-ups prior to key accents in order to build up some local tension.

I should add that these reservations can’t entirely be attributed to the artists. Most listeners and musicians will consider a modern concert grand simply to be a given—with all its disadvantages that most people will not even be aware of. I don’t want to be too negative here—the two musicians harmonized very well in their performance. They responded to each other’s playing. Alexei Volodin was really empathic, often playing with his face turned towards the cellist (Sol Gabetta sat to the left of the piano, almost in the pianist’s back). Despite his obvious virtuosity, his playing never turned into a mere show. Still, the vividness in articulation largely remained confined to the cello.

III. Allegro vivace

Also in the final Rondo, Allegro vivace, the artists selected a rather virtuosic tempo. Again, the modern concert grand wasn’t helpful at all. Despite limited / restrictive use of the sustain pedal, the instrument smoothed out lots of detail: there is more in this music than we heard! The most beautiful moment in this sonata was the excellent rendition of that dreamy, serene, soft transition to the final stretta that concludes the sonata.


Beethoven: Cello Sonata in C major, op.102/1

With the next piece, the Sonata for Piano and Cello in C major, op.102/1 (composed 1815), the artists jumped right into Beethoven’s late period. That composition formally consists of two movements:

  1. Andante, 6/8 (1/8=88) — Allegro vivace, 2/2 (1/4=144)
  2. Adagio, 4/4 (1/8=56) — Tempo d’andante, 6/8Allegro vivace, 2/4 (1/4=120)

Note that here, Beethoven specified metronome marks. He obviously was more meticulous about how he wanted artists to read his score. That’s just one sign of the composer’s late works. Primarily, that period is of course characterized by Beethoven’s late style. Already in the Adagio introduction, a mature, ethereal atmosphere dominates. In comparison to op.5/1, there was much less of a balance issue, as the music is predominantly restrained. The two parts predominantly form a partnership. In the earlier sonata they were often, if not mostly, complementary, contrasting. The intimate, lovely, playful introduction is followed by an Allegro vivace. That part features the brittle, austere language so typical of many of Beethoven’s late string quartet movements, largely with an imitatory texture. The similarity to op.5/1 in the tempo concept is interesting!

The Performance

I liked the good partnership between the two musicians; if there were balance issues here, then perhaps in sections with dense, agitated piano accompaniment.

Also in this sonata, the soft moments were the real highlights. One example was the Adagio part of the second movement with its wonderful melody lines in both instruments. Similarly, I liked the playful, dreamy Tempo d’Andante, which allowed the cello to play out its singing qualities. The concluding Allegro vivace is virtuosic, yet playful, despite the ruptures, the general rests followed by a fresh, sometimes hesitating restart / continuation. It’s as if the composer was uncertain about how to continue. What remains is the impression that despite the really adverse life circumstances the composer kept his sense of humor. That is most obvious in the jokingly funny final bars.


Prokofiev: Adagio from the Suite “Cinderella”, op.97bis

The intermission also marked the switch to 20th century music—still sort of classical, though: neo-classical, to be accurate. The artists devoted the second half of the concert to music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). Neo-classical here means that the compositions were not “modern” when they were written, but are based on (near) classical harmonies / tonalities and melodies.

At least in the case of the second piece to follow, the cello sonata in C major, Prokofiev didn’t just use the neo-classical style because he liked it. He rather did so in oder to avoid problems with the authorities. Prokofiev had previously been denounced and accused of “formalism”, i.e., writing compositions “against the spirit of the people”. That was a verdict that could simply ban a piece from all performing stages. More about this below.

So, this second part of the concert began with the Adagio for Cello and Piano, op.97bis, after a movement from the Suite “Cinderella”, composed 1944. That’s a dreamy, atmospheric short composition with singing, blossoming melody lines, often in parallel thirds and sixths (almost too beautiful!). Contrary to Beethoven’s compositions, it was immediately obvious that this music was written with the modern piano in mind. There were no balance issues whatsoever, the cello was clearly audible and well-projecting, even in the softest of flageolet tones.

The artists did not wait for applause to set in, but rather took this short movement as an introduction for the sonata to follow:


Prokofiev: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, op.119

Prokofiev’s masterful Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, op.119 reached completion in 1949. It was published 1951. Prokofiev wrote it for Mstislav Rostropovich, in reaction to attending a performance of Nikolai Miaskovsky‘s Cello Sonata No.2 by this artist. Just to illustrate the issues that the composer had with the authorities, here’s what Wikipedia mentions about the first performance of the sonata:

The work premiered on March 1, 1950 in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with Rostropovich as soloist and with Svjatoslav Richter at the piano. In his memoirs Richter wrote:

We gave the first performance of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata. Before playing it in concert, we had to perform it at the Composer’s Union, where these gentlemen decided the fate of all new works. During this period more than any other, they needed to work out whether Prokofiev had produced a new masterpiece or, conversely, a piece that was ‘hostile to the spirit of the people.’ Three months later, we had to play it again at a plenary session of all the composers who sat on the Radio Committee, and it wasn’t until the following year that we were able to perform it in public, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on March 1, 1950.

In his diary Miaskovsky hailed the occasion: “Yesterday Rostropovich and Richter openly played the Cello Sonata by Prokofiev in concert — a miraculous piece of music!”

The Composition

Some modernists may smile at this sonata and call it a composition “in the old style”. One can see this in analogy to how occasionally people belittle Respighi’s and Stravinsky’s neo-classical and neo-baroque compositions from the early 20th century. However, here, the background is a much more serious one. Yes, the music in this sonata is very accessible, “easy” in some ways. In the end, though, it still remains a sonata with really beautiful melodies and harmony. It is very expressive, talking “directly to the listener’s heart”, from the first to the last bar.

The sonata features three movements:

  1. Andante grave (1/4=54) — Moderato animato (1/4=100) — Poco meno mosso — Moderato animato (1/4=100) — Andante grave, come primaAllegro moderatoMeno mossoPiù mosso
  2. Moderato (1/4=96) — Andante dolce (1/4=60) — Moderato primo
  3. Allegro, ma non troppoAndantino (1/4=92) — Allegro, ma non troppo

A performance of this sonata already impresses right at the very beginning, through its sonorous, deep cello part that catches the listener’s attention.

The Performance

After a few bars, the melody moves into arpeggios in the piano part, while the cello switches to strong, percussive / “beaten” pizzicato. At this point, a little mishap interrupted the performance: one of the tuning pegs in Sol Gabetta’s cello turned loose. This required fastening the peg and re-tuning that string. Not a big deal, really, particularly because the mishap occurred so early, and the artists simply started over again. However, it took a while for audience and artist to forget the incident, and to be able to re-gain the full focus on the music. For the artist, that string remains a “mental obstacle” initially, and the listeners may easily be a little anxious about it happening again.

I felt that it was only here, in this first movement of Prokofiev’s sonata, that the cello started to flourish in its rich sonority and its singing tone. Maybe the Prokofiev sonata suits a big venue like this one better than Beethoven’s?

The interpretation was (of course) good, very appealing. The playing not only demonstrated the virtuosic abilities of both artists, but also their thorough experience with this music. I felt that this interpretation focused on the big phrases / arches, rather than on details in the articulation or on agogics / small-scale gestures. Especially in the first and the last movement, I felt that transitions were often too smooth, lacking tension, too much “played forward”. I would not state that the transitions were superficial, though. Luckily, the artists left enough space for the humorous aspects in the second and the third movement. Prokofiev’s composition to me is a true “hit piece”—more so than the late Beethoven sonata!


Encores, Conclusion

The artists played two encores:

I liked the second half of the concert more than the first one: that second half was definitely worth hearing!


Reminiscences

I could not resist comparing the performance of the Prokofiev sonata from this concert with that in Lukaskirche, also in Lucerne, on 2015-08-27. There, Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko opened their debut concert with that same sonata.

About the cello part first: I found Sol Gabetta’s instrument (by G.B. Guadagnini, from 1759) to be perhaps somewhat more singing, more subtle / refined, maybe slightly stronger in the middle range than Christoph Croisé’s instrument by Mattio Goffriller (Venice, 1712). On the other hand, the latter is hard to beat in the fullness of the lower range. For sure, Sol Gabetta is much more experienced, has more routine than Christoph Croisé (*1993). However, the latter (still in education) in my opinion (and in my memory) went more into the detail of phrasing and articulation. Sol Gabetta focused more on the big phrases, build-ups, etc.

How about the piano part? I definitely felt that Oxana Shevchenko offered a vastly more “living”, vivid and more compassionate accompaniment than Alexei Volodin. But that comparison may be flawed. To me, the concert in August felt like one of these rare, stellar moments: everything worked out perfectly—the venue, the light / lighting, the weather even, the acoustics, the atmosphere, the audience, the youthful spirit of the two artists…


Addendum

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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