Dec 28th 2014

Cello and piano share the spotlight in Rachmaninov’s sonata

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

A powerful new recording of Rachmaninov’s familiar Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Op. 19 (Light and Shadow, Becsta Records) manages to take this rich Russian music to new heights. It ranks comfortably alongside several impressive readings by other major cellists.

This version is more than welcome; the dark mysteries of the composition will never be exhausted.

Rachmaninov stabs the listener’s heart with a poignant half-step opening motif and toys with it for the first minute or so, then states the main theme, all at a lento pace that drives relentlessly forward. Memorable themes appear, fade and return through allegro and andante movements, ending with a technically challenging vivace.

For link to amazon, please see below

Cellist Rebecca Hartka and pianist Alys Terrien-Queen, both from the Boston area, tackled the sonata with personal dedication. Ms. Hartka recalls studying the score after many years away from it, and tells me she better grasped Rachmaninov’s intentions this time around. “It really resonated,” she says.

Rachmaninov was emerging from a long bout of depression and creative blockage when he wrote the sonata in 1901. He dedicated the piece to his friend the cellist Anatoly Brandukov who also advised him on the cello’s potential.

Is it really a cello sonata? Sometimes it is known simply as a cello sonata but Rachmaninov strived to give cello and piano equal prominence, and indeed Hartka and Terrien-Queen do so. They opted to call it Sonata for Cello and Piano. Some other duos have been less well balanced. Could the equilibrium be attributable to this rare pairing of two women? Most other recordings are by mixed genders or two men. 

Of particular interest in the general discography of this composition is the recording by Mstislav Rostropovich and Vladimir Horowitz, whose extra-slow andante effectively brings out the melancholy, as evidenced here.

Two other pairs who have left a lasting impression with me include Natalya Gutman and Vyacheslav Poprugin, and Lynn Harrell and Yuja Wang. Arkadi Volodos transcribed the andante movement for solo piano, helping to make the theme even more familiar to the public.

The American duo made a bold choice by selecting Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano and Cello as a companion piece on this album. I say bold because these two sonatas are a study in contrasts – both in terms of style and content. After 35 minutes of Russian depths, it comes as a sprightly relief to hear Poulenc’s French bounce and humor, so airy as to be reminiscent of Jean Francaix’s works. 

One can almost see the players smiling as they romp through the piece. In program notes, Poulenc is described as coming from “Les Six” French composers known in the 1020s and 1930s for their “light-hearted, jazz-inflected, nose-thumbing” compositions. The cello sonata came slightly later.

Poulenc also relied on a cellist, Pierre Fournier, for advice during composition and dedicated the sonata to him. Somehow they managed to create a spirited composition despite most of the work being carried out during the German occupation of France in the 1940s. 

To explore the background of this fascinating CD, I invited Ms. Hartka to join me in an email interview. She agreed, and shares her thoughts in this edited excerpt:

 

MJ: How did you happen to match up the Poulenc and the Rachmaninov? Was there much debate with Ms. Terrien-Queen?

RH: No, Alys claimed that the first time she heard me play she thought how nice it would be to do the Rachmaninov sonata with me. When she asked me to read it with her, I hadn't played the piece since my masters degree, and the richness of the writing spoke to me in a much more profound way than it had when I first encountered it. It was as if I really understood the piece for the first time, yet it also felt like coming home. It really resonated. And I felt it was time to make another album, so immediately it just clicked. Alys really has a strong connection with Rachmaninov, so she seemed very excited at the prospect.

I’ve been quite obsessed with French music. I can't get enough of the harmonies and colors, especially early 20th century. When I encountered the Poulenc Sonata, the jazz-like harmonies, the paradox of simultaneous sad and buoyant characters enchanted me immediately. 

MJ: What kind of adjustments did you have to make to switch styles?

RH: The two pieces are so very different -- one with rich big sound and full vibrato, the other with a light and nuanced bow, with a variety of articulations, and mostly a lighter and faster vibrato. This contrast seemed very compelling to us. The similarities began to emerge -- the darkness lurking behind, Rachmaninov suffering from depression and writers block, Poulenc in Nazi-occupied Paris. Given the shadows in my own life at the time, it made sense that these works would be my soundtrack. Music is nothing if not a compassionate embrace of our shared humanity.

MJ: What was your view of these movements and how they fit together? 

RH: Both sonatas have an almost cinematic character to them. They are both larger than life in their very different ways. The Rach first movement opens with an almost primordial quality, with fragments and questions, before the main theme begins. The melancholy first theme takes some hints from these seedling ideas with its half step motive and obsessive spinning quality. I think spinning motives appear throughout the sonata, with my favorite examples in the piano part at the climactic central part of the second movement, while the cello soars to its top register, and in the final movement during the second theme, where the piano sparkles and spins during a short solo section. It makes me think of snowflakes falling.

Rachmaninov offers one gorgeous melody after another but most glorious of all, in my opinion is the second theme of the fourth movement, which sits so beautifully in the warm rich cello range.

We have several good takes of this, but went for the one where I put on the brakes and luxuriate in the chocolaty beauty of the writing. Every time I play that passage I feel a warmth in my belly, like I'm leaning back after a delicious meal and basking in the sunshine.

MJ: And the Poulenc – did it touch you in a different way? 

RH: Yes, throughout the sonata, Poulenc vacillates between bouncy, energetic curiosity and often subtly sensuous lyricism. But his micro moods are vast and complicated, humorous one moment, achingly tender in the next, like the muted cello melody at the close of the second movement that ends with those fragile harmonics. But I also have a visceral reaction to the opening piano chords of the second movement. For almost a year I truly couldn't hear these chords without tears bursting involuntarily from my eyes.

Most joyful is his third movement where the piano and cello toss phrases back and forth. As the title (Ballabile) indicates, he had dance in mind for this movement. I can imagine leaps and spins. It also reminds me of the bustling of a happy city street, with all the smells and sights passing quickly from an open car window, or a bicycle.

MJ: How much have you and Alys played together, concertizing or recording? You seem in total sync. 

RH: We've only worked together for just over a year, but pretty intensely.

I think what you are noticing is a certain musical equality, yet independence. We did our best throughout this project to allow both of our voices to emerge both independently and in conversation, while forging a shared interpretation. We talked as much as we played, sharing our imaginations and observations. I think this helped us get inside the music. We really worked at it.

MJ: How did you manage to make these pieces sing the way they do? 

RH: The Poulenc was especially challenging for me. It's so gorgeous -- the subtle color shifts, the whiffs of baked goods, the dance-like melodies contrasted with a dark sadness. It gives such a sense of time and place, occupied Paris, with all its beauties but under a cloud. It's challenging to capture this contrast, and the rapid, almost manic character shifts.

The cello writing is not at all idiomatic, it's quite awkward in fact, he much preferred wind instruments to stringed instruments, and one can sense this in the writing.

The challenge in Rachmaninov was in pacing and drawing out the intensity, so as to illustrate the deep, oceanic passion of the work. It's such emotional music that engaging musically is really no effort for me. Instead, it was about not overdoing it -- an easy mistake to make in romantic music. It's an intensity tempered by the dark and cold of the Russian winters. From this piece I learned to foster a patient, deep and boiling inner musical heat.

MJ: What can you say about the fine balance of piano and cello? Neither of you seemed to fight for dominance. Did this just happen naturally?

RH: Alys is a very experienced collaborator and quite sensitive to balance. I have also put much energy into developing a big sound, and this is important in the Rachmaninov. Also, much of this we owe to our engineer, Joseph Chilorio, for expert placement of microphones.





To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "A powerful new talent from Italy, Alessandro Deljavan, made his U.S. East Coast debut October 19, with a magnificent reading of the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 under conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra."
Sep 18th 2019
EXTRACT: "This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them."
Aug 31st 2019
François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2,200-seat outdoor amphitheater was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven –playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After intermission, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and rattled the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. There were more surprises to come. Guy’s first encore was the little bagatelle “Letter for Elise”. A titter ran through the amphitheater. Was he joking? He looked out over the crowd and smiled back. A few bars into the piece, total silence descended once again on the crowd as Guy brought out the depth and beauty of little “Elise”. Everyone thought they knew this piece by heart. They were wrong. No one had heard it quite like this. Huge applause erupted a few seconds after the last note. Several spectators near me wiped away tears from their eyes.
Aug 3rd 2019
Combining “telepathic improvisation” plus original instrumentation, two adventurous Australian musicians have just launched a digital album of 12 new pieces brimming with sounds never quite captured before in recordings. The pianist plays two expanded keyboards simultaneously while his partner meets his ideas on an 18th century cello. The result is a marriage of the new and the old with echoes ranging from Bach to Arvo Part. 
Jul 20th 2019
Extract --- Question: What is your view of stage antics of ambitious pianists – the swoons and hair-flicks (Khatia Buniatishvili), the miniskirts and six-inch heels (Yuja Wang), the eye makeup and winks to the audience (Lang Lang)? --- Answer: It’s all show-biz. All three of those pianists, though, really CAN play (though in varying degrees of success in varying repertoire). No matter how short Yuja Wang’s vestigial swath of skirt becomes, no matter how vertiginous her high heels, she knows her way around the ivories (I especially like her Prokofiev), and I think she makes music more fun for a wide variety of listeners. If she couldn’t play, all the short skirts in Christendom couldn’t save her career. Same goes with the emoting of Buniatishvili, and, of course, most of all, the ultimate showman, Mr. Lang, the classical world’s answer to Liberace.