Concert of Solo and Chamber Music
January 28th, Saturday, 2006 at 7:30pm
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Natalia Gutman, cello
Slava Moroz, violin
Dmitri Shteinberg, piano
Suite for Cello Solo No.3 in C minor, BWV 1009
Trio No. 3 in C minor
- Allegro energico
- Presto non assai
- Andante grazioso
- Allegro molto
Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D. 821
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor
Allegro non troppo
Natalia Gutman’s all too rare appearance in recital in the United States opened with the popular Suite for Cello Solo No.3 by J.S.Bach. The quality of the key, allowing the use and full exploration of the open strings of the cello, gives a unique opportunity for the cellist to take advantage of the instrument’s scope and broad range. This is a very triumphantly joyous work, the writing being very cellistic, with many leaps over large distances, yet remaining mostly in the lower register of the instrument.
With penetrating tonal resonance and studious authority Ms. Gutman, unsmiling, and looking like this was to be an evening of serious business - dressed all in black - presented a performance paying respects to historical authenticity. She held the bow further out from the frog than is prescribed for modern playing, and used shorter bows, with a liberal application of single bow strokes to highlight contrapuntal lines and suggest polyphony. The vibrato was kept to a minimum. It was only after the Sarabande - the third movement - that I felt some light peeking through, with a more relaxed approach being taken in the second half of the suite. The Bouree was more lyrical than she had allowed herself to be in earlier movements, with a gradual shift back to the modern bow hold closer to the frog. The concluding gigue was taken at an impressive clip.
The tone was never pretty, but conveyed an honest humanity, focusing attention directly towards Bach. Although the musical lines were carved as though out of granite, and revealed the profound quality of the writing, the emotional impact was not always fully conveyed, perhaps because Ms. Gutman was caught up in projecting Bach as the architectural genius that he is, and seeing to it that not a single note was lost on the listener? It was, even so, the kind of reverential playing that makes you sit up and pay attention.
In the second item of the program –Brahms’ trio in C minor - Ms. Gutman was joined by violinist Slava Moroz, and pianist Dmitri Shteinberg. The ensemble was generally tight, but what struck me in this performance was the lack of vibe between the artists, and the visually detached presence of the three. The first movement may have benefited also from a change of character into the first major theme, which was presented with too much matter-of-factness. As this is already a dense work, any relief is particularly welcome. Both the second and third movements needed stronger characterization, and perhaps more tenderness. The fourth movement is one of those wonderful fiery creations in which Brahms thrives - a perfect vehicle for his cross-rhythms and intricately interwoven string writing.
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata - which opened the second half of the recital, is one of the gems of the cello repertoire. Its transparent beauty, pathos and easy melodic charm endear it to all audiences. It’s fluid lines can easily deceive because it is one of the most treacherously difficult pieces to perform - as it is not written to dazzle, and yet needs to sound unlabored. The Arpeggione itself - the instrument for which it was originally written - had six strings, and was fretted like a guitar. By comparison with the cello, it appears to have been capable of easily incorporating a higher register - where much of the Arpeggione Sonata is written, but in its setting for the cello, leaves the majority of us mortal instrumentalists who take up the challenge to play this piece drowning and stewing in our own sweat.
Ms. Gutman reigned supreme in the playing of this sonata, and proved herself to be an interpreter of depth and conviction. In noted contrast to the first half of the program her tone was unforced, and had an ethereal quality that transported the music to the exalted level where it deserves to be heard. It seemed as though she was trying less hard, and was connecting more directly to the music. The psychological shift was breathtaking, because her very ample technical means were being fully utilized towards a musical end. This powerful interpretation - particularly in first movement - was nevertheless unexpected, given the austere attitude in her approach to Bach. The Schubert was truly thrilling. We were hearing almost another cellist entirely, which made me even more aware of the strength and scope of her personality.
The first movement was taken at an unusually slow tempo, and yet her unhurried long vocal lines were spun with a masterly sense of grace and harmonic structure, which only a mature understanding of the work and a sympathetic appreciation could bring about.
Her tone was at its most alluring when - being transported to the musical heights – Ms. Gutman was not caught up with concerns of tonal projection as with the Bach. The slow movement was approached with more formality, but was beautifully poised. The final movement’s opening phrase was played non-legato with stress on the rhythmic thrust rather than on its lyricism. This was a little exaggerated for my taste, and perhaps it could have benefited from more Viennese charm and less soloistic muscle. One may quibble with this or that, but there was no questioning her authority.
I noticed that although her phrasing was musically unrestricted, Ms. Gutman had a striking habit of playing a long phrase in a single bow and leaving the last portion to an almost non-existent amount of bow, which appeared cumbersome and surprising in an artist with such technical versatility. I regret that the recital was not limited – instrumentally that is – to piano and cello, as this was by far the artistic highlight of the evening, and revealed a completely new dimension to Ms. Gutman’s artistry, something that was lost in the two trio works. Mr. Shteinberg’s accompaniment was discreet and assured. He was impressive in his ability to follow the cellist, particularly in this work that requires many subtle adjustments and flexibility of rhythm.
The final work on the program, Shostakovich’s very powerful piano trio No.2 in E minor saw Ms. Gutman in her interpretative element. Unfortunately, once again I had the feeling that her two colleagues were not enhancing this performance as much as they might have. The trio was written in 1944 - as news of the Holocaust would have first reached Shostakovich. It was written in memory of his Jewish friend, the Russian musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, who died under tragic circumstanes in World War II. This would not be the first time that the composer drew on Jewish themes or motives to express - most probably - oppression under the totalitarian soviet regime of Stalin. Shostakovich had many Jewish friends and was sympathetic to their plight speaking both historically, and as it pertained to the current government. The writing gives the effect sometimes of laughter through tears, but it is also clearly an expression of anguish.
Mr. Shteinberg has an easy fluency and natural technical gifts, but did not appear to be taking enough advantage of his equipment in the service of expression, and could have achieved a more vivid and sympathetic character portrayal. I have no doubt he possesses the talent and means to do this. Much of the strength of this work is written between the lines – the sarcastic humor, the bitter sense of irony - the resignation. The opening chords of the slow movement, for example, require clearer voicing, and depth – and a sense of pain. The dizzyingly fast final movement whizzed by, but sounded too much like an advanced technical study, the sixteenth notes flying off the page too unburdened, and lacking nuance. Mr. Moroz is an accomplished violinist and played with authority. I would like to have heard more contrasts in mood, and felt that his fast vibrato was sometimes limiting his expression rather than enhancing the music. This was such a strikingly impressive facet of Natalia Gutman’s playing – particularly in the Schubert, where her vibrato was always an integral part of her expression, rather than just a garnish. The allegretto was repeated as an encore.
I was disappointed not have any program notes, and would have been thrilled to hear Ms. Gutman once again play a cello encore - and so would the audience! Nevertheless the concert was a treat, and one to be remembered – a concert that will create much discussion, particularly amongst cello enthusiasts. Natalia Gutman is in my opinion, and the opinion of many authorities - one of the important cellists of her generation, and an interpreter to be reckoned with. The significance of an approach to music such as hers - is that the artist is prepared to make a personal statement that moves far beyond any ‘objective’ reading of the score. I only wish that this were more universally the case.