Unpresuming in a loose, un-tucked button-down, the winner of the 2007 Tchaikovsky competition strolled on stage to say a few words about parking validation. Cellist Sergey Antonov went on to explain that he had returned to Longy last Friday night for the second in a series of benefit concerts designed to aid cancer care and research. In collaboration with other musicians and the Boston Chamber Orchestra, he presented an assortment of musical treats designed to please.
First on the program was Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello, Op. 69. Beethoven is often credited as having practically created the genre of “cello sonata” and these works find him exploring and exploiting the cellist’s abilities. Of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, Op. 69 in A major is unquestionably the most popular. Situated squarely between his early (Op. 5) and late (Op. 102) works, this is a singing and superbly crafted piece. Antonov and pianist Victor Rosenbaum took a leisurely tempo, seeming to savor the harmonies. Antonov drew a lush, burnished sound as he alternated between assertive and tender characters, while Rosenbaum was beautifully articulate in the piano sections, but seemed at times to be too restrained in the exciting contrapuntal interplay.
The same leisurely interpretation was a bit too lax for the Scherzo, which is filled with relentless rhythmic tension. Their performance lacked the incisive clarity needed for its insistent and taut character. The two clearly cared a great deal about ensemble; in the Andante Cantabile opening to the third movement, Antonov practically leaned into the piano and made frequent eye contact with Rosenbaum. They both drew from a large palette of colors in the hushed opening– this was perhaps my favorite part of the performance. The Allegro vivace section found Antonov playing with more freedom, and both musicians handled technical challenges with ease as they flew towards the final cadence with kinetic energy.
Soprano Maria Ferrante joined Anotonov for some popular arias: Verdi’s “Ave Maria” and Puccini’s “Un Bel Di” and “O Mio Babbino Caro.” With the exception of “O Mio Babbino Caro,” the pieces were arranged for cello and voice and saw Antonov taking on an accompanying role. Unfortunately this arrangement didn’t quite work; the cello didn’t seem to be able to provide the amount of support needed. Nor did their sounds blend— while piano sections were passable, the differences in sound color, vibrato amplitude, and intensity in the forte sections were just too jarring. Understandably, then, it was in “O Mio Babbino Caro” with piano accompaniment that things really worked well. Ferrante set the scene with obvious delight, grinning at the audience as she explained the context of the aria. Despite some intonation issues, she was an engaging performer and took obvious enjoyment in presenting the songs alongside pianist Ilya Kazantsev.
For those hoping to see the winner of a major competition pull out all the stops, Antonov did not disappoint. Two showpieces came in quick succession: Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante and Davidoff’s At the Fountain. Antonov was showy but always in control (maybe a little too much so?) In the Chopin, he didn’t take any of the rubato one often hears, instead plunging ahead and lending it a sense of forward drive. He took obvious delight in playfully virtuosic harmonics and a particularly thrilling chromatic scale that plunged off the very edge of the fingerboard. At the Fountain was sparkling and shapely.
Ilya Kazantsev returned to the stage to play Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. Passionate and intense, they are full of the high-Romantic drama that one might expect from a younger Brahms. The B minor Rhapsody is knotty, almost stern, with swirling harmonies that never seem to settle. Kazantsev produced a powerful, thick, and heavy sound; while it sometimes got harsh, I thought that for the most part his unfussy and rough-hewn approach complimented the character well.
The second Rhapsody in g minor is slightly less dark and forbidding, which is not to say it’s “lighter”—on the contrary. Obsessive repetitions lead to thundering climaxes while surging modulations create turbulence; it’s as though Brahms is battering the audience with sound. Kazantsev’s earthy approach worked well for this brief piece, giving it a sense of relentless, rugged power: the monumental, distilled.
After the intermission, the Boston Chamber Orchestra came on stage for Grieg’s crowd-pleaser, the Holberg Suite. Plagued by some issues of intonation and ensemble, the BCO nonetheless turned out a spirited and charming performance, especially with the high-spirited and cheeky Rigadoun.
Antonov joined the orchestra for three final pieces: Faure’s delicate and wistful Sicilienne, Theme and Variations by Vielgorsky, and Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. His performance of the Faure was languid and very singing, but could have used a bit more lilt. Though I wasn’t familiar with the Vielgorsky, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tchaikvosky’s Rococo Variations, though with perhaps a bit more humor. Though it opened lyrically, the variations became increasingly virtuosic and demanding. Antonov never lost his cool, playing even the most difficult passages with aplomb.
Rather than ending the program with a bang, Antonov and the orchestra offered the popular Andante Cantabile, arranged from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1. Melancholy, deeply felt, and expansive, it was a lovely ending.
Though far from adventurous, the familiar works on this program did not fail to please.