A variable recital of Russian cello pieces from Chaushian and Sudbin

Borodin, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Rachmaninov: Alexander Chaushian (cello), Evgeny Sudbin (piano), Wigmore Hall, London. 21.7.2011 (GDn)

Borodin : Sonata for cello and piano in B minor

Prokofiev : Cello Sonata in C Op.119

Schnittke : Cello Sonata No.1

Rachmaninov : Vocalise

Alexander Chaushian and Evgeny Sudbin work well together on the recital stage, but it is difficult to work out exactly why. There is often a tension between them that suggests two soloists trying to hog the limelight. But there are certain musical qualities they share. A focus on melody and line links their styles, and they are both able to maximise the expressive potential of the music while always keeping a close eye on matters of detail.

An all-Russian programme would seem to be ideal for them, but strangely, neither performer puts in a particularly Russian performance. Sudbin in particular moves beyond the stereotypes of Russian pianism by going easy on the keys and performing with a light cantabile legato whenever the music permits. Even so, he spends more time in front of orchestras than he does accompanying string soloists, and there were many occasions when he threatened to overpower the cello just through the sheer volume of his accompaniment. His thick legato is part of the problem; it means that the piano is always sounding, a continuous bed of harmony that the cello must overcome simply to be heard at all. Lifting the lid of the piano to its highest position didn’t help matters either.

Nor indeed did Chaushian’s narrow, introverted sound. He actually has a very appealing tone, and if it were not for the volume of his companion, he would have no trouble filling the generous acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. He can do the weighty, round sounds when he needs to, especially on the lower strings, but in general he prefers a more modest and more nasal tone. That constricted timbre makes his playing all the more melodic, focussing attention on the individual notes of the solo line.

Borodin’s Cello Sonata is an early work, written when the composer was in his twenties. It is distinctively Borodin though, and wholly undeserving of its neglect. There are passages and phrases throughout the work that you’ll recognise from his mature compositions. For example, many phrases build up to a climax and then ebb back, with long descending sequences. And there is a theme in the first movement that sounds almost exactly like the second subject of his Second Symphony’s first movement. Borodin never completed the sonata, and the third movement was left as sketches, which were pulled together into a performing version by musicologist Michel Goldstein in 1982. He did a good job, and the finale is the most tightly structured movement of the work. The performance was about the best of the recital too. It was focussed and precise but elegant and characterful. If it were not for the work’s obscurity it would be a great way to conclude the concert.

I’ve never quite understood the attraction of the Prokofiev Op.119 Cello Sonata. It is a long and rambling piece, and even the young Borodin could write a cello sonata with more formal logic. Many performers, I suspect, go out of their way to paper over the cracks. But not Chaushian and Sudbin; their approach is to present the work, warts and all. Perhaps devotees will thank them for it, but for me they ended up confirming my dim view of the piece.

I didn’t think much of the Schnittke either. Now this is a piece that I am fond of, but I’ve heard far better performances than this one. Again, Chaushian and Sudbin went for a precise and controlled approach, with far more attention focussed on the detail rather than the architecture. Chaushian didn’t take up the composer’s offer of liberation in the senza tempo sections at the beginning, playing everything to a precise beat. The second movement had more gymnastics, but didn’t build up, as it should. True enough, the movement looks episodic on paper, with the piano and cello alternating phrases. But it is a cumulative process, with each phrase building on the previous one, right up to the devastating climax, which this evening passed almost without notice.

The last movement was better. Here the composer writes a long post-climactic epilogue, which fits well with the precise and occasionally melancholic approach of these performers. The last page was a mess though. Like the climax to the second movement, this is one of the many passages in Schnittke’s work where he relies on the sheer theatricality of the performers. If you just play the notes, as they did this evening, the ending just sounds arbitrary.

Fortunately then, the recital concluded with Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, a work that really does play to the strengths of these performers. By avoiding the excesses of rubato (not to mention vibrato) in which many players and singers indulge themselves, they bring out the inner beauty of this simple melody. And Rachmaninov knows what he is doing with his piano accompaniment, giving Sudbin plenty of notes, but voicing the chords in such a way that there is no chance of him overpowering.

The Rachmaninov was almost like an encore, but it was followed by an actual encore, another short but melodically elegant work. The audience departed, debating what it might have been. Something from the late 19th century probably, and probably from Russia too. My money is on Rimsky-Korsakov. Any advances?

Gavin Dixon