A commanding French recital from Johannes Moser and Marc-André Hamelin in Vancouver

CanadaCanada N. Boulanger, Debussy, Franck: Johannes Moser (cello), Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Koerner Hall, Vancouver Academy of Music, Vancouver, 18.4.2024. (GN)

Marc-André Hamelin (© Sim Cannety-Clarke) and Johannes Moser (© Uwe Arens)

N. Boulanger – Three Pieces for Cello and Piano
Debussy – Sonata for Cello and Piano, L.135
Franck – Sonata in A major for Cello and Piano

It is a noteworthy event when two world-renowned artists engage in a North American tour to mainly smaller, less high-profile venues. For the past few months, that has been the case for cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who arrived in Vancouver for a pre-lunch recital of Debussy, Franck and Nadia Boulanger, courtesy of the city’s Music-in-the-Morning organization. Immediately apparent at this concert was how well these musicians play together, and just how much they enjoy playing with each other. In general, they offered bolder performances than one typically finds within the French tradition, but also thoughtful ones, and stylistic concerns did not impede enjoyment. The structural cogency brought to the modernist Debussy sonata was rewarding, and there were genuine revelations in the sonata of César Franck, differentiating its cello version from the popular violin rendering distinctly.

It would be difficult to find more intriguing pieces to open a cello recital than Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, dating from 1914. Boulanger’s reputation as educator was unbounded, but she is less frequently acknowledged for her skill as a composer. I thought these three pieces were wonderfully crafted and nicely contrasted. Moser found the expansive Fauré-like lyricism in the first, the more comfortable ‘salon’ and folk qualities of the second and combined with Hamelin for the strongest dynamic contrasts and rhapsodic energy in the third, marked ‘vite et nerveusement’. Played with such animation, the final piece was striking, and would hardly have been anticipated from this source.

The sheer quality of the playing made the performance the Debussy Cello Sonata an experience. Written in 1915 as the first of a planned six sonatas for diverse instruments, this is ‘late’ Debussy: the composer’s death intervened before the project was completed. In the French performing tradition, the sonata emerges as a skittish combination of elliptical statements and strong contrasts, texturally airy and all bound together within a certain intimacy of style. Moser and Hamelin were more explicit in their articulation here, emphasizing structural elements and carrying the work forward with a sureness of purpose.

From Hamelin’s imposing statement at the beginning of the Prologue, one could feel the breadth and power of what was to follow. Moser’s cello was both ardent and sensitive, the sharp contrasts in the movement’s development faithfully executed, yet it was the distilled concentration of line achieved that made everything seem integrated. Hamelin’s splendidly exact playing – beautifully suspended on one hand and full of virtuoso energy on the other – was an anchor here. The angularity and playfulness of the jazzy Sérénade, with the pizzicato cello, were presented with estimable clarity and strength – and the right sense of whimsy. Instead of being merely restless, the Finale was made to seem both experimental and passionate, moving forward with a great rhapsodic verve and consuming flow. It was a performance of strength and concentration; it was as if the artists were saying, ‘This is a great work’, and it can sound great even if shorn from its traditional Debussy-like and impressionistic trappings.

I have always preferred the original violin version of the Franck sonata to its cello transcription, simply because the latter does not seem to add much, if anything, to the former. The significance of Moser and Hamelin’s performance was that it gave the cello version a weight and breadth of its own, developing an extremely wide range of romantic feelings out of a warm and carefully-judged rhapsodic flow.

Moser was interesting from the start of the Allegretto, expressing the work’s yearning with unusual modesty and inwardness and careful to avoid any excess of vibrato. Hamelin’s finely-suspended piano line built the movement’s tension gradually, allowing the opening out of cello and piano together to be a truly joyous release when it came. This was a beautiful feeling, so naturally developed and in some ways unique. The following Allegro was nicely surging and impassioned but consistently tempered by melancholy. In the coda, Moser’s fragile, vibrato-less utterances achieved almost a sense of wonder; indeed, it was of technical interest how the cellist produced these almost otherworldly sounds.

Hamelin’s beautifully-set rhapsodic lines gave the slow movement an unusual grandness and breadth, never revealing its secrets too quickly but putting in place a feeling of inexorability. This allowed space for the intimate musings of the cellist, which were special and permitted greater weight at the movement’s climax. The gentle lyricism that both artists brought to the early parts of the finale was fetching, but the grip slowly tightened, becoming more and more urgent. Hamelin’s virtuoso self was very much there at the end, bringing a weight and frenzy to the close that one finds in the composer’s preceding Piano Quintet. This was a gloriously-abandoned way to finish an interpretation marked elsewhere by considerable deliberation and restraint. I have never enjoyed the cello version more.

Overall, this was a recital of great artistry and intelligence, and flowed from beginning to end. It is even more remarkable that it took place at 10:30 in the morning, and that the artists could make room for an encore: the involving slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata.

Geoffrey Newman

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