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Stravinsky, Glazunov, Rachmaninov: Richard Jenkinson (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum, Cardiff 13. 2.2011 (GPu)

Stravinsky, Suite Italienne (arr. Stravinsky and Piatigorski)

Glazunov, Chant du ménestrel

Rachmaninov, Sonata for Piano and cello in G minor, Op.19

The high point of this interesting recital undoubtedly came with the Jenkinson Frith Duo’s performance of Rachmaninov’s remarkable sonata, which closed their programme. This was a passionate, but properly disciplined, performance of what is surely one of Rachmaninov’s finest works, even if it presents the performers with some problems of instrumental balance. These were largely solved – Benjamin Frith’s assertive work at the piano dominated in places, as it should; but elsewhere the common suggestion that this is really a piano sonata with cello accompaniment was put firmly in its place, as Richard Jenkinson’s assured and expressive playing was foregrounded to make its full impact. In the lengthy opening movement, the complexity of which is hinted at by its being marked Lento-Allegro moderato-Moderato, the judgement of tempo and changes of tempo felt spot on and the contrasts between the movement’s slower, sadly pensive moments and its turbulent development section worked well, in a manner which felt organic rather than forced, as it can sometimes seem to be. There was, indeed, a pleasing sense of shape to the reading of this movement, so that the resolute piano chords at its close felt like the capstones of an arch. The Allegro scherzando which follows is technically demanding, but no mere showpiece. Here it certainly made musical and emotional sense within the context of the whole work. Still, the heart of the work is surely the third movement (Andante), elegiac and melancholy but not self-pitying. The intimacy of the opening theme was well handled by Benjamin Frith and Richard Jenkinson phrased the long, sustained lines on the cello very convincingly; the movement’s powerful climax was approached in a manner which had both a kind of unstoppable momentum and a profound naturalness, before the movement ended with its calm conclusion, played with utter gentleness. The last movement had a blazing affirmatory quality, especially in its second theme. The whole made complete emotional and musical sense.

The scale and size of Rachmaninov’s Sonata were preceded by favourite Glazunov miniature – the five-minute Chant du ménestrel. The piece is, in no derogatory sense, slight, but its writing for the cello (here the pianist is definitely cast as accompanist) contains some lovely passages. Richard Jenkinson was a persuasive advocate for this undemonstrative late-romantic music (ably supported by Benjamin Frith), music which allowed one to hear to perfection the beautiful tone of his instrument, made by Giovanni Grancino of Milan around 1692.

Jenkinson and Frith had begun their programme with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, arrangements for cello and piano (in the preparation of which Stravinsky worked with the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) of movements from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The music for Pulcinella was itself was firmly based (at least as far basic melodies and rhythms are concerned) on the works by Pergolesi provided to Stravinsky by Diaghilev. By the time we reach these arrangements of some of the music from Pulcinella, in the Suite Italienne, we are hearing musical materials which originated with Pergolesi, were reworked, orchestrally, by Stravinsky and then arranged for just two instruments by Stravinsky and Piatigorski (who added some particular virtuoso tricks for the cellist). On the relatively few occasions when I have heard the Suite Italienne in the cello and piano version (it also exists for violin and piano) the outcome of this long process of transmission seemed to me to be a degree of stylistic and idiomatic uncertainty, the partial absence of a single governing musical ‘voice’. This particular performance didn’t do much to make me change my mind. Whether because of some issue of this kind, whether because it was the first item on their programme (and there was rather too much noise in the audience) of for whatever reason, this was the least convincing item in the recital; some of Richard Jenkinson’s playing was rather tentative, piano and cello weren’t always well balanced. The tarantella which opens the last movement made its impact and before that there was some attractive and persuasive music-making in the Serenata. But both musicians were to be heard more fully ‘together’, and playing nearer their full capabilities later in the programme – above all in the Rachmaninov. Their performance of this would alone have justified anyone’s attendance at this concert.

Glyn Pursglove


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