Duo Parnas—a Family Affair—Melds Precision and Warmth

United StatesUnited States Bach, Ysayë, Honegger, Ravel: Madalyn Parnas (violin), Cicely Parnas (cello), presented by San Francisco Performances, San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, San Francisco. 10.4.2018. (HS)

 J.S. Bach: Suite No. 2 in D minor for Unaccompanied Cello

Ysayë: Sonata in A minor for Solo Violin, “Obsession”

Honegger: Sonatine for Violin and Cello

Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello

Where the classical music canon offers works featuring violin and cello together, usually it’s in the form of concertos or as part of piano and string trios. Rarer is the music just for the two instruments alone. Undaunted, Madalyn and Cicely Parnas have been scouring music libraries and old recordings in search of material for their collaboration. Both are still studying at Indiana University, although they have been carving out professional careers for 10 years, individually and together as Duo Parnas, to increasing critical acclaim.

These two young, poised musicians, granddaughters of the much-respected cellist Leslie Parnas, proved it again before a relatively sparse audience Sunday. Their recital was presented by San Francisco Performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s impeccable 450-seat concert hall.

Among the few violin-cello duos familiar enough for even serious musicians to recognize is Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. The ingenious four-movement piece concluded an enjoyable afternoon. That piece, preceded by a short, puckish Sonatine by Honegger, made for a lively second half. The program omitted a scheduled duo by the Russian composer Tcherepnin and the Bach suite replaced a fascinating-sounding suite for unaccompanied cello by the Cátalan composer Cassadó (without explanation).

The first half consisted of more familiar unaccompanied solo works—for Cicely, J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 for unaccompanied cello, and for Madalyn, Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor “Obsession.”

On this occasion the violinist (the older sister) came off as the more accomplished of the two. The Ysaÿe’s daunting technical demands held no barriers to achieving the kaleidoscope of colors, instrumental effects and melodic invention in the sonata’s extrapolation of two familiar tunes. One is the opening phrase of the Prelude to Bach’s Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin, the other the Dies Irae. Recurrences of both of these themes spiced up Madalyn’s hauntingly lyrical playing in the lyrical Lent and the breakneck pace of the finale Allegro furioso. The cellist, playing from a score, established her credentials with technical accuracy and fine attention to detail. If there were something missing, it was a deeper reflection of Bach’s magnificent architecture.

The duos displayed an uncanny ability to make their two instruments intertwine as one, very much like sisters finishing each other’s sentences. Their work combines precise articulation with warm, resonant tone. A nuanced use of small crescendos and diminuendos shapes phrases and makes the music come to life.

In the Honegger, this was apparent in the slow opening statement, where the unison playing felt like a single instrument, and in the smoothly weaving, slithery counterpoint as the music speeds up. In the Ravel, the richness of their sound made the few moments when the composer filled out the harmonies sound almost like a string quartet, and their uncanny unity of purpose made the tricky pizzicato tradeoffs dance gaily. Most impressive was their playing in the soulful song of the Lent, and the clash of colors that lifted the finale, marked Vif, avec entrain, to grin-inducing heights.

Harvey Steiman


Leave a Comment