Anatolijus ŠENDEROVAS (b.1945)
Two Songs of Shulamith [11:41]
Dmitri Borisovich KABALEVSKY (1904 – 1987)
Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71 (1962) [28:54]
Alberto Evaristo GINASTERA (1916 – 1983)
Cello Sonata Op.49 (1979) [21:55]
Canción al Arbol del Olvido Op.3 No.2 (transcription by Wolfgang Lehner) [3:15]
Jelena Očić (cello); Federico Lovato (piano)
rec. Teatro ‘Ventidio Basso’, Ascoli Piceno Italy, 16-17 September 2009
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72358 [65:48]
Creating a good recital programme for the concert hall but especially CD can be a tricky business. The mix between the testing and the familiar, the saleable and the unknown has to be just right. This disc is a truly excellent recital; well planned, compellingly performed and truthfully recorded. My main interest in requesting the disc to review was the Ginastera Sonata Op.49 – a work I had not previously heard but by a composer I find never less than interesting. Good and very enjoyable as a work that it proved to be, the revelation for me has been the Kabalevsky Sonata in B flat Op.71.
This is a very much a United Nations disc: recorded in Italy for an Austrian company by a Croatian cellist and Italian pianist playing music by Lithuanian, Russian and Argentinean composers. The names of cellist Jelena Očić and her pianist Federico Lovato were previously unknown to me but they are both very fine players indeed performing with a wide expressive range and cast iron techniques. All of this music – with the exception of the delightful song transcription ‘encore’ - need both physical and intellectual muscle and it is on display here in abundance. The least well-known composer here is Anatolijus Šenderovas. Born in Lithuania in 1945 he has become part of the group of famed Baltic composers including Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks. But as so often these kind of groupings are made on geographical/political rather than aesthetic/musical grounds because he is very much his own man. They are an ideal curtain-raiser for this programme because, although not insubstantial in themselves, they focus on the more lyrical and expressive aspects of the cello’s personality leaving the red-blooded drama to the sonatas to come. Šenderovas takes as his point of departure the ‘Song of Songs’ from the Old Testament with its theme of Immortal Love. This text has inspired composers in the past notably Bantock’s extended setting The Song of Songs and Vaughan Williams rapturous Flos Campi. Although stylistically utterly different there is a curious distant alliance between this work and the latter work with the ecstatic voice of the cello here mirroring Vaughan Williams’ solo viola. In this work the cello is the dominant partner – very much the singer of the songs with the piano providing accompaniments that seem to imitate the gentle strumming on a guitar or, in the second song, a simple folk drum; here the piano is ‘prepared’ one assumes with some strings damped by the insertion of card or felt giving an effectively deadened pitch – a simple but very effective idea. Throughout the disc Očić and Lovato play with an easy spontaneity and unanimity that reflects the fact that they are an established duetting team. Without a doubt you might hear more tonally beautiful cello playing than Očić but rarely more characterful. I enjoy very much the way she is willing to sacrifice momentary tonal sheen for the greater good of the ‘message’ of the music. Hers is a resinous sinewy sound with power to spare. Both Očić and Lovato are very strong on atmosphere; the opening to the song starts with a hypnotic repetition of a single note which the moves only at the point the cellist enters. Listen to the gently thrumming piano accompaniment Lovato provides Očić’s passionate musings – beautifully voiced and balanced; the piano being both an accompanying guitar and a secondary voice singing the song. Očić finds a wonderful range and variety of tonal colouring. Again the word hypnotic springs to mind – the obsessive fixating on little germ-like figurations giving the music a powerfully rapt quality. This is music that – as mentioned before – allows the cello to sing. Again and again I find myself being drawn by the spontaneously natural quasi-vocal phrasing of Očić. A wonderful opening to the disc and a real ‘find’ in contemporary cello repertoire; a fascinating fusion of modern and music with an ethnic tinge. The rather brief liner makes no mention of the source of the thematic material Šenderovas uses; I’m guessing it is all original but if so it owes a debt of acknowledgement to North African sinuous melodic shapes.
Following on from this beautiful work is the revelatory Kabalevsky Sonata in B flat major Op.71. I’m sure cellist’s eye-brows in their dozens will be raised by my previous ignorance of this work but what a discovery it is. I have always enjoyed Kabalevsky’s music but with the caveats that his work does toe the Soviet party line more than some and he does not write music as deeply personal and revelatory as others. However, this sonata dispels that superficial generalisation. Written in 1962, it is exactly contemporaneous with his own Requiem and Shostakovich’s coruscating Symphony No.13 Babi Yar. There is a deeply affecting confessional quality here that I find extremely moving. The very opening – as the liner describes – begins in the depths of the cello over a tolling piano figure, the tonality oscillating from major to minor. Again Očić is superb at giving a vocal quality to her phrasing. Although the music strives to rise from the depths musically and emotionally it is impossible not to feel a gravitational pull clawing at the music as it tries to escape the oppressive weight of the opening material. There is a muted, nostalgic lost quality to the music here that both players are able to project magnificently. Lovato produces superbly gentle filigree work that floats insubstantially around the cello like the ghost of memories past. Suddenly, about half way into the extended first movement [track 3, 5:20] the tolling bells become quicker and more insistent and we are into a passage of more a typically mechanistic Soviet paranoid nightmare. I wonder if here Lovato could have provided more emphatically crude chords for Očić to assail – but that is a tiny detail. After less than three minutes of vainly trying to ‘escape’ the opening of the movement there is in effect a cello cadenza which sinks back to depths followed by a piano solo, again hovering between major and minor, trying to sing a consoling simple song which the cello takes up, the repeating piano figure now high in the registration, and about to fade into silence before one last angry gesture of defiance brings the movement to an abrupt end.
The ghostly atmosphere pervades the central Allegretto con moto even more. Simple chilled phrases from the two players answer each other before they join to play this extraordinary spectral waltz. Played loud by a full orchestra this would be a happy go lucky Masquerade-esque waltz. Here, thinly harmonised, played with a winnowed away tone it is disconcertingly unsettling. There is a gentle malice at work here – ghostly dancers from an earlier time – it really is a remarkable passage. Quite without the ‘dance and be damned’ spirit that Shostakovich might write but somehow all the more disconcerting for that. Again Očić and Lovato capture the fleeting insubstantial quality of the music superbly. Listen to the way Očić allows her vibrato to intensify over the top of a waltz phrase and fade away as she descends – it adds to the smiling neurosis of the music. The piano is blander (deliberately so), his accompaniment being more dutiful, more correct – but the simplicity of the piano part and the understated way it is played here allows the cello to have a canvas and not a competitor on which the drama can develop. Yet this is a drama performed in sepia; again not the garish primary colours of Soviet realism. There are deep emotions being explored here yet barely acknowledged. The waltz returns and the movement ends almost inconsequentially. There is none of the rage or nightmarish quality we expect from Shostakovich in one of his Scherzos. Kabalevsky comes closer in the opening of the final Allegro molto – exactly the kind of scurrying solo part over pounding piano that features in so many similar Soviet works. Here’s a case in point where Očić’s tone is harsher and edgier than some illustrious rivals yet to my ear this sounds right for the underlying mood of the music; there are frantic and desperate things happening here. Perhaps the piano could have been a fraction more equal status in the balance here. For two minutes this hurtles along before the piano reins in the tempo and the cello takes the opportunity to sing a wide-ranging song of protest. A climactic high point – literally - is reached and as the cellist falls away from it in a kind of exhausted collapse, the toccata-like opening tempo resumes. But this time the dynamic is hushed and sinister like rats scurrying around some disused torture chamber. The original assertive dynamic soon reappears and then, and quite extraordinarily this mood evaporates and over another low tolling piano note the work’s Coda is reached. The cello seems to be striving for a redemptive sunlight, crawling up through the dark aided by a repeating piano cadential figure that is resolutely both tonal and in a major key. Has the composer found or is asking for forgiveness? It is an extraordinary musical coup de théâtre, the final hushed cello pizzicato notes fading to nothing. Given that Kabalevsky – allegedly – managed to have his name removed from the original infamous Zhdanov decree of 1948 which blighted the careers and lives of so many of his contemporaries by virtue of his Party connections this work has a sense of mea culpa that I had not heard in any of his other works. That is pure speculation and fancy on my behalf but it is by some distance the most profound Kabalevsky I have heard and a work of a movingly personal nature. Aided, at the risk of repetition, by a performance of total commitment and personal conviction – a major achievement by these artists.
Not that the Ginastera Sonata that follows is a minor work. It is one of a spate of cello works inspired by his marriage to cellist Aurora Natola. A late work, written in 1979, it distils the essence of Argentinean folk music into something altogether more abstracted than his popular works like Estancia and Panambi. Yet it retains the use of muscular motor rhythms and pounding piano figurations that typify so much of his work. Again both Očić and Lovato are wholly committed to the style of playing the music demands – physical power and dynamic extremes are the order of the day. As with much of his writing for strings Ginastera seems to care little about how hard he makes the parts he writes – cruel double-stopping and exposed high-lying passage work are the norm. Also, both parts play almost continuously in teeth-gritted opposition. Even when the superficial energy of a movement subsides the mood remains tense and uneasy. The central pair of movements are powerfully contrasted, the second movement Adagio passionato giving both players opportunities to muse at length in extended solos. The third movement Presto mormoroso is another of those strange nocturnal scherzi in which Ginastera seems to delight. This is not haunted in the way Kabalevsky might write – there are natural forces at work here but they are mysterious and unfamiliar all the same. It is a superb tour de force of atmospheric writing that these players toss off with insouciant ease. The final Allegro con fuoco is much more like the spectacular toccata movements Ginastera wrote as finales to his Piano Sonatas 1 and 2. Musically he has moved on but they share a common heritage. Again he makes aggressively unreasonable demands of the cello in particular and I love the way Očić attacks the music as though her very existence depended on it. Not the stuff of a Classic FM “All the Mogadon Moments You’ll Ever Need” Album for sure but viscerally exciting. With one last dismissive gesture the work ends. Certainly a work for those who know they enjoy Ginastera – all the fingerprints of his later works are here. If not as compelling for me here that is simply because the emotional journey of the Kabalevsky was more personal, more insecure and ultimately more touching in its desperation.
The disc is completed with another simple stroke of programming genius; a beautiful transcription of an early Ginastera song. An ideal lyrically stunning conclusion to the disc. Again Očić’s phrasing is so soulful, so naturally expressive that you can’t help but think that she must also sing – and rather well at that. Lovato is so subtly understated in his accompaniment he provides the perfect foil to the more overtly emotional Očić. Looking through the catalogue I see that both of the main works are available on other discs. The Ginastera as part of a Naxos survey of the complete Ginastera chamber cello works, and the Kabalevsky variously coupled with other twentieth century sonatas. By definition this particular coupling is unique. As I hope I have made clear I think this is a superb disc in every respect particularly the programme planning and hyper-sensitive response to the music from both performers. The recording is good without being absolutely first rank but in no sense does it detract from the great pleasure I had listening to this disc repeatedly. Documentation is modest – Očić contributes the liner-note but it is not as insightful as some performers notes prove to be. If a good disc can be judged by its ability to change one’s assessment of a piece or composer then this is such a disc – I have always enjoyed Kabalevsky’s music but until now I do not think I was aware of the depth of some of his oeuvre.
A superb disc in every respect particularly the programme planning and hyper-sensitive response to the music … see Full Review