Jan Müller-Szeraws and Ya-Fei Chuang performed a lengthy recital last night in Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Typically, a recital favors one artist over another, even if all parts are equally difficult, and even in this day of collaborative piano. Ya-Fei Chuang, piano, was on her home turf, being a faculty member at Boston Conservatory. Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello, was the visiting artist. The publicity and program alternated billing, and the repertoire selected called for great technical and musical mastery from both cello and piano parts; this concert was a joint project of both musicians, a truly collaborative recital. Together, Ya-Fei Chuang and Jan Müller-Szeraws made beautiful music for an appreciative audience.
The program opened with Beethoven, Sonata for Piano and Violoncello, op. 102, No. 1 (1817), in C. This sonata, played in two movements, abolishes the traditional dynamic of soloist and supporter. It belongs to the later period of Beethoven’s works and is often performed with thunder and lightning. We heard a different, more intimate, reading of this work, beginning with the opening solo cello line announcing the theme. The introspective opening of the Andante drew us in to this quieter exploration of the work filled with great nuance, shifts in character, and tonal color. The sonata culminated in an impeccable rendition of the playful “catch me if you can” final theme in the Allegro vivace, the instruments trading off harmonic and melodic lines in tight synchrony, coming together for the unison gesture of a rapidly ascending figure. The drama and intensity remained present but did not overwhelm the piece.
The second piece on this recital was Shostakovich, Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in D, op. 40 (1934). A tour de force, this early work already announces sonic landscapes which become more dominant in later compositions by Shostakovich. The opening Allegro non troppo offers a study in contrasts itself, from the flowing piano line and broad first theme in the cello part, the short rhythmic bursts prefiguring the later alternation and merger of legato and staccato lines, a growing intensity and thematic yearning, and finally, a pianissimo recapitulation. The second movement, Allegro, combines the driving rhythmic energy of a moto perpetuo in the cello’s ostinato with a contrasting, playful, theme doubled at the octave and announced in the piano. The result is an intensely manic scherzo. Even the legato theme is constantly interrupted by either glissandi harmonics or recollections of the driving rhythmic cell. Chuang and Müller-Szeraws admirably captured the shifting characters in this movement in matching articulations at breakneck speed. The Largo opens on a rhapsodic theme in the cello, the bleakness predominating in this movement a sharp contrast to the preceding one. The effect was absolutely haunting. The very beginning of the final Allegro recalled Beethoven (a comparison I had never heard before and one wholly appropriate in the context of this program), a lithe scherzo theme that does not last but yields before a dueling piano and cello concerto – unrelated parts veering in opposite directions. After a brief return of the lithe opening theme, the piano truly cuts loose in the spirit of a Russian piano concerto, the cello trying to hold on, then quietly yet frantically moving the rhythm along. Müller-Szeraws and Chuang boldly embodied the music in their thrilling rendition. This performance could have been the climax of a recital, but here it only announced intermission.
The three movements of the Webern, Drei Kleine Stücke, Op. 11 (1914) pass by in under three minutes, sketching a sonic landscape rather than elaborating one. The brevity of the work took many in the audience by surprise. The challenge with these pieces is to wring meaning from each note and gesture, which the performers did. Afterwards, Müller-Szeraws spoke, comparing the Webern pieces to the cooking technique of reduction. An apt image for Webern: potent flavors in succinct form.
The last work on this program was Chopin, Sonata for Piano and Violoncello in g, Op. 65 (1846). This work is gorgeous and now frequently programmed; still, the more I think about it the more it puzzles me. Premiered in Salle Pleyel, Paris, with Chopin at the keyboard and the French cello virtuoso Auguste Franchomme, it is a fiendishly difficult piece to perform, more so given the instruments and instrumental technique of the day. The lush Romanticism of both melody and harmony, evident from the opening Allegro moderato, tax the pacing and interpretative powers of both instrumentalists. The composition also draws on vast reserves of technique and careful deployment of dynamics and intensity over its 25-minute minute span. The Scherzo seems a Barcarole, the Largo a Nocturne, adding to the difficulties inherent in this piece. The performers rose to the challenges this piece posed and presented an admirable performance.
I was struck last night by the decision to perform this recital with the piano lid raised to its full height. Seully Hall is a small space, so using the half prop might have seemed a more logical choice. There is also the inherent contrast in sound production: a modern piano can overwhelm any member of the violin family (and most woodwind instruments as well). Increasingly the use of the long-armed prop seems the norm in recitals of piano plus instrument. I wonder what is gained? But I raise this as a philosophical question to ponder, and not a comment on any imbalance in last night’s concert. Ya-Fei Chuang and Jan Müller-Szeraws working in tandem achieved a harmonious balance throughout the recital, and the interplay between voices and parts, as well as changing articulations and colors shared across instruments, remained clearly audible. The fully-opened piano lid was no obstacle for them.
At the conclusion of this lengthy recital, an exhausted Jan Müller-Szeraws and a similarly taxed Ya-Fei Chuang received well-deserved accolades of praise.