Fervour and Virtuosity from Kniazev and Lugansky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Shostakovich, RachmaninovAlexander Kniazev (cello), Nicolai Lugansky (piano), Wigmore Hall London, 16.7.2016. (GD)

BrahmsCello Sonata No 2 in F Op.99

Shostakovich: Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40

Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in G minor Op.19

Together with the Bach cello Suites and the Beethoven cello Sonatas, Brahms’ two cello sonatas have become an imperative to any aspiring cellist. Great cellists like Casals and Rostropovich have stamped their code of interpretive paradigm on these works, but more recently cellists like Jean-Guihen Queyras, Gautier Capuçon and Mischa Maisky have departed from the great cellists of the past to find new subtleties, clarities in these works. It is not so much a question of surpassing a Casals or a Rostropovitch, it is more to do with a vision of the Brahms’ sonatas with less emphasis on extrovert bravura and more focus on eloquent line and tonal structure; avoiding too much vibrato and emotional, rhetorical excess, while at the same time never losing sight of the works’ sense of dramatic power and contrast. So how did Moscow trained Alexander Kniazev fare in these sonatas? In the programme biographical notes he is described as a successor of Rostropovich, and although every phrase of the F Major Sonata was Kniazev’s own, overall it was a big bold performance, with ample use of vibrato to enhance the emotional affect, fully reviving the ghost of Rostropovich. Contrary to the informed restraint found in the more recent cellists mentioned above, I had the sense of Kniazev going back, rather than moving forward.

The opening ‘Allegro vivace’, in which F major, F-sharp minor, and F minor are subtly played off against each other, was played with enormous vigour and relish. In the strange ‘Adagio affetuoso’, where F-sharp major and F minor are juxtaposed, the playing was infused with an engaging sense of contrast – those strange pizzicato’s sounding compellingly ominous. The ‘Allegro passionato’, evolving through a series of shades and half lights, had the appropriate nocturnal feeling. The family resemblance to the finale of the Third Symphony was well noted. The concluding second ‘Allegro’ captured the sense of final serenity. The allusion to the student song, ‘Ich hab mich ergeben’, from the Academic Festival Overture was ’there’ without sounding in any way underlined. Kniazev was ideally accompanied by pianist Nikolai Lugansky – although ‘accompaniment’ fails to define the way in which Brahms’ piano part is just as important as that of the cello; a real instrumental dialogue. Overall I was bowled away by the fervour and virtuosity of this performance. But I am not sure I would always want the sonata played like this. For repeated listenings I would probably go back to the superb Starker/Sebok recording, with its perfect balance between extrovert virtuosity and restrained subtlety and lyrical eloquence.

It is now well known that the Soviet Authorities demanded from Shostakovich a more ‘simple and ‘direct’ musical language, after the first performances of his ‘modernist’ hard edged, sexy, violent opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1934, which was officially described as ‘more muddle than music’. The Cello Sonata was composed and first performed later in 1934. It is truly amazing how the greatest composers – I am thinking of Mozart, whose work was often interfered with by those in authority, in Mozart’s case the Archbishops of Salzburg (and later the Emperor Josef ll) – outwardly conform to such criticism, but also manage to ‘smuggle’ in to these ‘revised’ works an element of discord, complexity, subversion, never in an overt way, but more ‘hidden’, sutured into the inner fabric/tonality of the music This is exactly what makes Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata Op.40 so interesting and revealing. This complexity’ is apparent in the first movement ‘Allegro non troppo’; the opening lyrical sonata ‘romantic’ form soon gives way to a more angular (even acerbic) syntax. The second movement is a wild and fanatical scherzo, maintaining the tempo with machine-like consistency from the first to the last note leaving no room for individual feelings. Nonetheless, the fight for the freedom to have precisely those feelings is present here too, despite extreme metrical constraint. Also this movement offers a display of pianistic virtuosity – indeed throughout the work, the piano is never consigned to the role of mere accompanist. As with the preceding Brahms sonata, Lugansky, with well calibrated pedalling, played in perfect dialogue with Kniazev. Indeed, in climactic moments it was more a case of the two players playing almost in conflict with each other; a kind of musical agon, which I am sure the composer intended. The dark and despairing ‘Largo’ is the work’s centre of gravity. Its mood veers from meditation to exasperation to resignation, while the ostinato pattern of the piano’s bass line lends it an aura of obsession – a true ‘dark night of the soul’, intensified with quasi references to the brooding darkness of the last scene of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Kniazev an Lugansky played this with a soaring intensity which was overwhelming, and, I imagine, only truly realised in a ‘live’ performance. The final ‘Allegro’ emerges slyly on the piano, only to assert its own mood of brilliant irony – perhaps the only viable alternative to the impasse of the ‘Largo’. Tonight’s programme note writer is right to mention the touch of ‘vaudeville’ which contrasts with the otherwise ‘classical’ style of the movement. The mixing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ later became a feature of the Surrealist movement in France. But for Shostakovich it works as another way of subverting the social realist norm, expected of him by his political masters.

The Rachmaninov Cello Sonata is an early work dating from 1901. It was soon overshadowed by the huge success of his 2nd Piano Concerto. Although it is not much played now in recital, there are a few notable recordings including one by Rostropovich, also available on YouTube. Most of the themes are introduced by the piano within a prevailing minor key tone-scape. The sonata is full of those big tunes he later deployed in his concerti and symphonies; I am thinking of the big saccharine melody in the third movement of second symphony. Rachmaninov includes some interesting tonal juxtapositions as in the change to E flat within the second movement’s C minor. But there is not much tonal dialectic development here, the E flat is used more to introduce another one of his sugary melodies. I can’t imagine the work having better advocates than Kniazev and Lugansky, who revelled in those big melodies. In the thrilling and colourful finale, with its vibrant leaps and kaleidoscopic rhythmic clusters of invention, the virtuosity was stunning, again in a way which only a ‘live performance’ can deliver.

The official recital ended with the Rachmaninov work. But the audience were treated to no less than three encores in the shape of two song arrangements: Brahms’s ‘Muss es eine Trennung geben’, and Faure’s ‘Après un rêve’, and ending with a transcription for cello of a movement from Brahms’ Violin Sonata in D minor Op.108.

 Geoff Diggines

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