Peter Wyrick and Anton Nel do justice to Beethoven and Shostakovich cello sonatas

United StatesUnited States Various: Anton Nel (piano), Peter Wyrick (cello). Gunn Theatre at Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 4.12.2022. (HS)

Cellist Peter Wyrick and pianist Anton Nel take a bow after the recital © Steven Hunker

Beethoven – Cello Sonata, Op.69
Debussy – from Préludes Book 2
Chopin – Ballade No.3
Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40

It was to be a celebration of piano trios but the violinist, Alexander Barantschik, took ill, so cellist Peter Wyrick and pianist Anton Nel came up with what turned out to be a stellar concert on Sunday afternoon. It was the first in this year’s San Francisco Symphony chamber music series which is designed to feature a special violin.

The series, in the intimate confines of the Gunn Theater at the Legion of Honor, started after Jascha Heifetz bequeathed his 1742 Guarneri del Gésu violin to San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums (the Legion and the De Young). The museums, in turn, loaned the fiddle to San Francisco Symphony for its concertmaster to play. A provision requires that it be played in chamber music at the Legion’s 316-seat Belle Epoque auditorium four times a year.

Since 2002, Barantschik and principal cellists and violists from the orchestra have teamed up with Nel, who flies in from his home base in Austin, Texas, for the concerts, which are usually built around trios and quartets. Rather than cancel when Barantschik became ill, Wyrick and Nel put their heads together and came up with a challenging and satisfying lineup.

It was all good, but the highlight was the cheeky Shostakovich cello sonata that replaced the Shostakovich Piano Trio No.2, which had been programmed as the finale. The sonata shared some of the same stylistic elements as the trio, which famously begins with a haunting cello solo played entirely on eerie harmonics. In the sonata, the harmonics appear in a spooky sequence when the cellist plays them sliding up and down the strings. Wyrick even managed to make the individual pitches sound clearly.

With only a few days to prepare the sonata, which the two had never played together, their approach to the jaunty rhythms and unanimity in changes of pace, not to mention ideal dynamic balances, felt like they were totally on the same page. Although the music calls for virtuosity, there was never a sense of showing off, just channeling it all into a unified and completely delightful whole.

Although this sonata and the trio it replaced share plenty of examples of Shostakovich’s punchy rhythms, often for sardonic comic effect, the sonata is not nearly as dark as the trio. It made for a juicy finish to a concert packed with dazzling music.

The other sonata, Beethoven’s Op.69, is familiar and justifiably popular. It reflects Beethoven in a happy, reflective mood that celebrates the beauty of the sounds the two instruments can conjure. It also features lots of delightful interplay, especially in the back-and-forth of the first movement. Wyrick and Nel reveled in the contrasts between the sweet opening music and the sterner and louder responses that came next, as the sections alternated, sometimes unexpectedly. A pervading sense of improvisation made it all work nicely.

The rest of the sonata unfolded gracefully, and it finished with a flourish.

For his solo contributions, Nel turned first to Debussy for three preludes from Book 2. The cakewalk danced with wit, the moonlight shone through a series of pianistic flourishes, and the fireworks topped things off with plenty of pianistic dazzle.

Even better was a lovely example of story-telling on the keyboard in a performance of Chopin’s Ballade No.3. Nel reined in the sort of heart-on-sleeve emotions one usually hears to reveal a focused elegance. There was plenty of dash to the extroverted moments which fit well with the intimacy of the quieter ones and kept things in a spellbinding balance.

Harvey Steiman

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