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S & H International Recital Review

Magnitude on a Small Stage – Krosnick and Kalish reviewed by Bernard Jacobson

On February 17, in one of Philadelphia’s smallest performance venues (the Curtis Institute of Music’s Field Concert Hall), two phenomenal instrumentalists gave a recital that must rank as one of the biggest musical events of the season, if magnitude may be measured not by the size of the apparatus involved but by the bold programming and superb performance of inspired compositions. The performers in question were Joel Krosnick, cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet for the last three decades, and his duo partner of many years standing, the pianist Gilbert Kalish.

Krosnick and Kalish have earned a very special kind of glory by championing some of the most gifted American composers of the present and the recent past–not just playing their works once or twice, but determinedly going out on a limb for them, year in and year out. Their program on this occasion included three such works: the late Ralph Shapey’s Kroslish Sonate (whose very title celebrates their stature), Elliott Carter’s 1948 Cello Sonata, and the Duo for Cello and Piano composed just two years ago by Richard Wernick. As an equally satisfying curtain-raiser, they offered the Cello Sonata written a few years before his death by the Argentine-born master Alberto Ginastera.

All four works received performances that vividly illustrated the players’ interpretative gifts and technical mastery. The Ginastera is rich in the Hispanic-sounding rhythms and textures that reveal this composer in a much more favorable light than his relatively impersonal essays in the lingua franca of cosmopolitan modernism, and Krosnick and Kalish realized all its facets, especially the extraordinary range of melodic and timbral imagination of the slow movement, and the scurrying mystery of the characteristic Presto mormoroso scherzo. Of the three American pieces, the Shapey is a three-movement creation dating from 1986, when the 65-year-old composer was showing signs of the mellowing that came over both his personality and his music under the benign influence of his second marriage at that time to the singer Elsa Charlston (who was in Philadelphia to hear this performance). Certainly the marking of the central slow movement–"Delicato"–suggests an emotional world far removed from Shapey’s more familiar mode of hectic intensity, and the movement itself, probably the quietest sustained stretch of music he ever wrote, speaks the language of a soul profoundly tranquil beneath all the storms that marked Shapey’s external career.

I shall perhaps expose myself as an unregenerate reactionary if I say that the 56-year-old Cello Sonata is one of the last great works Elliott Carter produced, before he turned from the genuinely inspired style of his early and middle periods to the stultifyingly intellectual eye-music that has too often characterized his later work. This sonata is a piece full of true musical inventiveness. Both Shapey and Carter profited from the kind of insight and command that typifies Krosnick/Kalish performances. But for me–and, to judge from the long silence that preceded the applause at its end, for most of the audience–it was the Wernick Duo that emerged as the strongest, or at least the most powerfully individual, of the three American works we heard. As in most of his recent compositions–notably the Second Piano Sonata written for (and recorded on the Bridge label by) Lambert Orkis–Wernick here succeeds in re-imagining the potential of the instruments he is writing for, and forging for them what seems at once a totally original and an absolutely compelling musical language. I have by now heard several performances of the Duo, both by Krosnick and Kalish, and by Krosnick’s pupil Scott Kluksdahl (who commissioned it) and his duo partner, but I have never been so completely overwhelmed by it as I was this time around.

There will certainly be physically bigger concerts in town this season – Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to give just one example, are in the midst of rehearsing Mahler’s Third Symphony as I write – but there are not likely to be many that manifest such grandeur of thought and execution on the part of composers and performers alike.

Bernard Jacobson


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