Emotion and Technique Perfectly Balanced in Colin Carr’s English Program

24/10/2016

Britten, Adès: Colin Carr (cello), Thomas Sauer (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 20.10.2016. (BJ)

Britten – Cello Sonata in C major, Op.65; Suite No.3 for Solo Cello, Op.87

Adès – Traced Overhead for Solo Piano, Op.15; Lieux retrouvés

Two works each, by a pair of English composers born a couple of generations apart, provided the audience at this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital with genuine and perhaps seemingly un-English thrills. We Brits are not commonly regarded by the rest of the world as especially emotional people, in music or outside it. But thinking of a succession of our composers starting with Tallis, Byrd, and Dowland, and going on by way of Purcell to Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Britten, and beyond, I do not think any reasonably unprejudiced person could deny a claim to powerful expressivity in the now abundant music of a country once tendentiously described, a century or so ago, as “Das Land ohne Musik.” And the late Benjamin Britten and the now 45-year-old Thomas Adès surely supply highly convincing evidence to rebut any such denial that might arise.

In the case of Britten, it’s true, we tend to find him at his most expressive in his vocal music, including the War Requiem and some strikingly heart-on-sleeve operas, but that is perhaps because such instrumental works as the Cello Symphony and the Sinfonia da Requiem are simply not as well known as they deserve to be. Between the Cello Sonata and the Suite No.3 for solo cello there is, I think, an interesting distinction to be made.

There is plenty of emotion implicit in the 1961 Sonata, with its brooding opening and its deeply felt central Elegia, but in this instance Britten seems to be hugging his feelings to his breast in a way that is introverted, even close to costive. By contrast, the third of the three suites for solo cello is unmistakably openhearted in its tribute, however wordless, to the exuberant personality of its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten had first met the great Russian cellist a year earlier, and Rostropovich was to serve, for the rest of Britten’s life, as the stimulus to the composition of five important works, as well as to the growth of a remarkably warm personal friendship.

The difference between the Sonata and the Suite was, on this occasion, masterfully laid bare by Colin Carr. With superbly pointed support in the Sonata from pianist Thomas Sauer, he realized the two works’ protean range of moods with compelling vividness, and the technique of his playing was as consummate as its expressive power.

The Sonata begins with a first movement whose title, “Dialogo,” seems especially apt: its effect, rather akin to that of one of Charles Ives’s string quartets though in a quite different idiom, conjures up the image of two sharply different persons talking to, and at some moments around, each other. (The movement, incidentally, is laid out along classical sonata-form lines. It even includes an exposition marked to be repeated in the classical fashion. When I met Britten back in the early 1960s over coffee after a concert he had conducted in Amsterdam, he told me an amusing story. A few days earlier, at his house in Aldeburgh, he and Rostropovich had played through the Sonata for the first time. As they were approaching the end of the exposition, he had asked the cellist, “Shall we take the repeat?”–and Rostropovich had quite peremptorily shot back, “Of course–it’s marked!” I need hardly add that the composer’s question was asked purely in the context of a read-through. He would never have entertained the notion, any more than Carr and Sauer would have done, of omitting the repeat in actual performance.)

Thomas Adès’s music in general explores a range of mood and expression that is for the most part more openly confessional than Britten’s. Adès is a pianist of virtuoso skill, and his solo work Traced Overhead drew some splendid playing from Thomas Sauer. I enjoyed this almost rhapsodic piece a good deal, but it was to be overshadowed by the sheer imagination of Lieux retrouvés at the end of the evening. The atmospheric quality of the first movement, Les eaux, contrasted well with the scherzo-ish zest of Les montagnes and the wild goings-on in the concluding La ville, a “Cancan macabre” (described by the composer himself as “a romp”) that sent up some hilarious instrumental rockets and went on to test both players to the limit of their powers—a limit that was never reached.

Meanwhile, the third movement, Les champs, offered an oasis of profound peace. It evoked memories of the wonderful Hardy setting in Vaughan Williams’s Christmas cantata Hodie that pictures the cattle at rest in the fields at night. And if this ineffably tranquil movement, with its stratospheric writing for the cello (negotiated with deceptive ease by Carr) and its almost impossibly protracted progress from note to note, also recalled aspects of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, it did so while remaining blessedly free from the kind of tawdry religiosity that one has to put out of mind in order to enjoy that composer’s extraordinary blend of mastery and kitsch.

A superb evening, then, in every way. I hope Messrs Carr and Sauer will be back again, and soon.

Bernard Jacobson

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