Although much of the received narrative concerning classical music after World War II emphasizes the ascendance of the hard-core alienated avant-garde, the “who cares if you listen” polemicists, and the thermonuclear angst of the refugees and wannabe refugees, the war did not wipe away all the great composers working in earlier or alternative styles. This was the point cellist Joshua Gordon and his frequent collaborator, pianist Randall Hodgkinson, wanted to make in their October 3 recital at Slosberg Hall at Brandeis University. To that end they deployed two cello sonatas in the unthreatening key of C major, one by that notorious regressive Benjamin Britten, the other by that ambivalently compliant soul Sergei Prokofiev. In between, they slipped in an early (but see below) work by that genial redoubt of accessible serialism, Gunther Schuller, which featured a very backwards-facing series of references.
The two cello sonatas shared a common inspiration in the young Mstislav Rostropovich. The Britten op. 65 (curiously, the same opus number as Chopin’s cello sonata) was written in 1960, when the composer had come to know the cellist and at the same time the cellist’s Soviet admirer Dmitri Shostakovich. At a time when Britten was coming off a successful decade of writing mostly operas, and when his purely instrumental works were under critical fire for clever aridity, Britten enthusiastically took up the challenge of a virtuoso firebrand performer by doubling down on the cleverness quotient; the entire five-movement work is based on the interval of a major second inflected with minor seconds, with contrasting scalar passages (the paradigmatic pattern of major and minor seconds, we ween). At the same time, he indulged in an expressive atmosphere of muscular ebullience, including some satirical bite of the Shostakovian sort in the fourth movement’s bitonal march. Many performers really dig into this and revel in the pyrotechnics — the many different pizzicato effects of the second movement, the misterioso atmospherics of the central slow movement, and the galumphing saltando of the finale. Messrs. Gordon and Hodgkinson were surprisingly restrained and elegant, however. Their performance was clean and well balanced (both within and between their parts), with superb tonal and technical control, but oddly diffident and Apollonian in affect withal.
The Schuller Duo Concertante was both the earliest and latest work on the program. Also inspired by a performer, in this case Ernst Silberstein, a colleague of Schuller’s in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, this piece was mostly written by Schuller in 1947. It then got put aside when the composer got cold feet regarding his mastery of the musical forms he was using, and it was not completed — with varying amounts of revision to what had already been written — until 2002. To Schuller’s immense credit, his 2002 work blends seamlessly with his 1947 original, creating in toto one of his most engaging scores. It was influenced, he writes, by Ernst Krenek’s interest in the procedures and forms of early music — its polyphony and various strict forms, and thus was unlike most of Schuller’s other work.
At the same time, Schuller couldn’t completely set aside his feeling for jazz, so the net effect is a soundscape recognizably Schuller’s but devoted to archaisms. The first movement, an Andante moderato, is not in a strict early-music form (sounded like sonata form to us…), but partakes liberally of strict counterpoint. The following variations movement has a lovely, lyrical theme, which, despite Schuller’s use of 12-tone technique, he varies by emphasizing consonant intervals and broad singing lines. Indeed, some of the piano passages in the variations suggest Arnold Schoenberg substituting for Bobby Short at the Carlyle. The finale is a passacaglia, an even stricter variation format, with a theme that reminded us of some dimly remembered 1940s show tune. Gordon and Hodgkinson seemed very well attuned to and fond of this piece, and their performance was persuasive and idiomatic in all the idioms Schuller invoked. The composer was on hand to share with the performers the plaudits of the very substantial crowd.
Finally, the Prokofiev sonata, op. 119, has become part of the great standard repertoire for cello, one of several gifts from Rostropovich to cellists everywhere. This piece was written in 1949, after Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and even old Myaskovsky had been brutalized by the Zhdanov decree censuring them for “formalism” that, in the Stalin regime’s view, insufficiently invoked Russian folk culture. While Shostakovich devised a barely-compliant but still fundamentally subversive response, Prokofiev seems to have undertaken a more straightforward capitulation. The sonata is lyrical, with occasional folk-like elements, and yet the sudden key shifts and sometimes driving rhythm remain reminders of his personal style. It follows the slow-moderate-fast schema Shostakovich adopted in his Sixth Symphony, though the first movement did not plumb the depths nor consume the bulk of the work the way his symphony did.
By this time in the program, and perhaps reflecting their affection for the piece, Gordon and Hodgkinson had warmed up expressively: they brought out all the sonorous tone and brio that had been missing in the Britten. A perfect example is the saltando-spiccato of the middle movement, which, along with the balalaika-like strumming in the finale, was as lively here as it was restrained earlier. Mr. Hodgkinson’s tone as well was rich and warm throughout. Our only reservation concerned the sonata’s final pages, in which Prokofiev puts brakes on the headlong rush of most of the movement. Whether this represented a rueful reflection on the vagaries of his public existence, or on more private concerns (on top of everything else, the KGB had just imprisoned his ex-wife), or even a purely aesthetic judgment, is not clear, but it did not seem as if the performers on this occasion had come up with a definite point of view: their tempo was a little faster than might have been warranted.