Last night, Boston Conservatory’s String Masters Series presented a recital of 20th-century Russian sonatas performed by Allison Eldredge, cello, and Max Levinson, piano. Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons serves as an apt summary of this recital. The program opened with Nikolai Miaskovsky, Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1948), composed for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich; his recording remains the most widely known in the West. As a whole, the sonata deserves to be better known than it is, and I was pleased to see it on this program. The sonata begins Allegro moderato with a wistful theme on cello over calm arpeggios in the piano, building from tranquil to an intensity of unrequited longing. The Andante cantabile is lush and passionate, the concluding Allegro con spirito a propulsive flight with calmer moments of intense and lingering phrases. Leave it to Miaskovsky to make the key of A major sound desolate and mournful! Eldredge and Levinson offered a solid and moving reading of this sonata, one very much influenced by Rostropovich. I think there remain possibilities in the music for greater tenderness, dare I say fleeting moments of happiness, and I hope someday to hear such a reading of this sonata.
The Dmitri Shostakovich, Sonata in D, Op. 40 (1934), dedicated to Viktor Kubatsky and premièred by him on cello with the composer at the keyboard, predates Shostakovich’s censure by Stalin over the opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The Sonata’s Allegro non troppo opens calmly on a simple melody which becomes increasingly more complex and wide-ranging. The simplicity of the opening never wholly disappears, even as the movement becomes increasingly declamatory. The Allegro is a manic, and maniacal, dance furiously unspooling; this A-theme alternates with a brief B-theme of calm interludes on piano while the cello produces wisps of glissandi harmonics. The Largo opens on a haunting melody, voiced simply on cello, which grows into music of heart-breaking sadness. The final Allegro is a lively movement opening on a slight, skipping melody before flying full-throttle through passages of rapid notes recalling the inevitability of a locomotive speeding down the rails, then manic kicks replacing the earlier hop and skip. Eldredge and Levinson admirably captured the changes in mood between each movement of this work. I would have preferred a bit more breathing room in the first movement, the better to offset the manic intensity of the second and fourth movements; this, however, is a matter of very personal preference and minimal consequence.
Following intermission, the duo returned to the stage for Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sonata in G, Op. 19, for cello and piano (1901). This 30-minute work was dedicated to Anatoliy Brandukov, who premiered it with the composer at the keyboard; initially overshadowed by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, premiered some four weeks earlier, this Sonata in G is now a fixture in the repertoire. Technically it does not present inordinate challenges (still, it is Rachmaninoff, so it is hardly easy), but the real difficulty of this piece is in the musical phrasing and the paired dynamics. The sonata begins Lento–Allegro moderato with a call in the cello, answered by piano, moving across registers, then a pronounced shift as the piano takes off and the cello unfurls a sustained legato melody broken by moments of rhythmic staccato articulation. The second movement, Allegro scherzando, has moments of manic intensity not unlike Shostakovich, with flying thematic fragments tossed back and forth between cello and piano, then calm moments of legato melody recalling earlier episodes in the first movement.
The Andante is a study in slow and gorgeous melody, requiring the utmost care in smooth touch or bow change and precisely tiered, carefully arranged tiered dynamics. This movement sounds unmistakably like one in a minor modality, demonstrating the difference between Rachmaninoff and Miaskovsky while also making a delightful pairing on this program. I prefer it taken at a slower tempo, but then again I am frequently told I prefer to wallow in sound; such are the vagaries of personal taste.
The finale, Allegro mosso, combines expansive legato melody with rapid snippets of phrases and rhythmic declamations. Again, a protean work covering a lot of territory. Eldredge and Levinson had very good pacing and structure and maintained the musical intensity throughout the sonata. The cello kept up with a thundering piano (no mean feat) and the balance remained as intended — sometimes piano overshadowing cello — sometimes vice versa, as the composer intended. Eldredge and Levinson were models of collaboration performing this work; I cannot recall ever seeing another cellist turn to face the keyboardist’s hands to match the articulation and timing of key passages. The result was a perfectly matched rendition of this challenging work.
As an encore, we heard Gabriel Fauré, Après un rêve, in the Pablo Casals transcription, a delightfully fluid piece with its recall of something half remembered playing off of slower music themes heard earlier in the evening.
Many years ago I bought a copy of Marilyn Hacker’s poetry collection Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (first published in 1986), and I like it very much. Friends have frequently given me grief over this title when they see it on my bookshelves. They find the title pretentious, overbearing and overwrought. No matter; I love the book and Hacker’s poetry. I mention this here because the title, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, serves as an apt summary of this recital. The music is freighted with large, existential questions of love and death (how could it not be?), and the variable season made its presence felt, too. The unseasonable weather provoked allergic reactions in humans (audience and cellist alike), and a temperamental wolf-tone in Eldredge’s cello. She worked valiantly to tame the grumbling howl; it is a pity to have such difficult repertoire so well in hand and then have to fight the instrument. I hope to hear Eldredge and Levinson perform these works again when the wolves are silent and the music can take center stage without competition.