Hahn: Variations chantantes for Cello and Piano
Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 65
Martinu: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1
Liszt: Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano
Franck: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major
After a couple of totally enjoyable, somewhat out-of-the-box, performances last week, on Saturday evening I took advantage of a break between two spring showers (Quite a nice change from snow showers!) to cross the Park and make my way to the always bustling 92Y on the Upper East Side for a more traditional event: The exclusive New York engagement of "Distinguished Artists" Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis, two of the venue's favorite artists, whether they're onstage together or on their own.
The general theme of the concert was "The Lure of Paris" and, accordingly, the program focused on foreign-born composers who had at least temporarily made Paris their home, eagerly soaking up its unique atmosphere, language and culture to more of less subconsciously inject this influence into some of their works. So we had an exciting Parisian-flavored international cast featuring Venezuelan Reynaldo Hahn, Polish Frédéric Chopin, Czech Bohulav Martinu, Hungarian Franz Liszt and Belgian César Franck in perspective.
Probably the least-known name of the entire list, Reynaldo Hahn inconspicuously opened the concert with his short "Variations chantantes", which had been inspired by a lovely melody from Cavallini's opera Il Xerse. This was the perfect opportunity for the large audience and the two silver-haired men in black to become acquainted with each other and get in the mood for bigger and better things.
Chopin is rightfully world-famous for his extraordinary output of piano compositions, so I was surprised to see a work for cello and piano on the program. (On the other hand, while Jeremy Denk is by all accounts capable of masterfully handling Chopin on his own, having Steven Isserlis dwindle his thumbs on the side would have been a deplorable waste of available talent.) Fact is, although this semi-oddity sometimes sounded a bit unlike Chopin, it was still a quintessentially Romantic sonata overflowing with attractive melodies and sumptuous lyricism, into which the two extremely physical musicians indulged without restraint and in impeccable unison.
The most "un-classical" episode of the evening was provided courtesy of Bohulav Martinu, the only composer from the 20th century on the program, whose 1939 sonata exploded with turmoil and passion, and concluded in a high-spirited mood that could not completely hide some discreetly dark undertone. This was a fiery, if somewhat ambivalent, love letter to The City of Light he would soon have to flee.
After intermission, the power duo was back at its most poetic for "Romance oubliée", one of my favorite song transcriptions by Liszt. The heart-felt poignancy of the cello impeccably responded to the refined elegance of the piano, and this delicate little jewel effortless made a powerful and lasting impression.
The Franck sonata being also one of my favorite works of the classical music repertoire, I always feel privileged every time I have a chance to hear it. Until yesterday though, I had only been able to enjoy the original violin and piano version, in some cases performed by the very same Jeremy Denk in the company of erstwhile partner in recital Joshua Bell, so I was extremely curious to get to know the cello and piano version. And the verdict is, it was still a richly harmonic, stunningly lyrical composition celebrating undisturbed love and happiness, and if the cello's notes did not soar as luminously high as the violin's, they definitely added a subtle aura of mystery to the whole piece.
Our long and loud ovation was rewarded with a delightful treat by Stravinsky, yet another foreign-born composer who had a strong relationship with Paris, before we had to reluctantly leave the concert hall and come to terms with a dark and rainy Saturday night.