Expectations were high at the sold-out recital of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum yesterday. Here was a local boy who REALLY made good. (He studied for two years at NEC for an artist diploma with Lawrence Lesser, who was in the audience with six of his students). For a cellist who had won the Concert Artist Guild Auditions a few years before, there was no bigger prize left than winning the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition (and the audience award to boot). Hakhnazaryan is a very great artist and musician, and hearing Sunday’s recital, one is assured he richly deserves all the fame that will follow.
There were no program notes, which would have been most helpful. Hakhnazaryan, who spoke only at the concert’s opening, lamented the death two days ago of a great Armenian composer, Edvard Mirzoyan. Hakhnazaryan marveled how odd it was that he had programmed a elegy by Gabriel Fauré months ago, and this was to be the first time he played it. The Elégié begins slowly and tragically, then lightens up and sounds like a lovely Fauré song, then goes through a series of agitated re-workings of earlier themes. One immediately noticed the extraordinary elegance of the cello playing, matched beautifully by pianist Noreen Polera, who had won the Accompanying Prize at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition.
César Franck’s (1822-1890) famous Sonata in A Major started life as a violin sonata, written when he was 63 as a wedding present for the 31-year-old violinist Eugène Ysaye. This four-movement cyclic sonata with its memorable melodies has been such a huge hit that it has been transcribed for not only viola and cello, but for tuba (!), flute, alto sax, organ with choir, violin with orchestra. Hakhnazaryan and his superb pianist gave a brilliantly nuanced performance. His extraordinary bow control allowed him an unusually broad range of dynamics. This sonata, for me, had long ago worn out its welcome, but these two musicians brought such life, passion, and beauty to it that I was deeply moved throughout, as if hearing it for the first time.
Frédérick Chopin’s (1810-1849) Introduction and Polonaise brilliante in C Major, op. 3, a major tour de force for cello, usually closes a program, but here it merely closed an amazing first half. Chopin wrote surprisingly idiomatically for cello. Hakhnazaryan and Polera played with great flair. Needless to say, there was an instantaneous standing ovation.
The second half of the program really would have benefited from program notes, or a word or two from the stage. Györgi Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Sonata for Solo Cello, written between 1948 and 1953, was clearly a favorite of Hakhnazaryan, who played it (as he did much of the time) as if in a trance, with his eyes closed. The two movements, the tonal and darkly romantic Kodaly-sounding “Dialogo,” and the Bartók-influenced “Capriccio,” are full of technical tricks — glissando pizzicati, string glisses, and extremely quick finger-work. It received an excellent performance.
The next piece, The Jew: Life and Death, by Mikhail Bronner (b. 1952) was a complete puzzle until I did some research after the concert. Moscow-based Bronner has written a great deal of music with Jewish themes. Clearly a piece close to Hakhnazaryan’s heart, (there is another YouTube performance of this in a performance at Moscow Conservatory in 2008) this duo for cello and piano (1995) was unrelievedly grim, with glissandos that sounded like desperate weeping, passionate sadness, and anguish.
The last two scheduled pieces were Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) lovely Nocturne and Pezzo Capriccioso, both played with passion and, again, beauty. For his encore, Hakhnazaryan played the living daylights out Paganini’s Variations of a Theme from Moses in Egypt (he called it Variations on One String on a Theme from “Moses in Egypt” by Rossini ). Hakhnazaryan technically has it all: fabulous bow technique, beautiful vibrato, mastery of ponticello and every other cello device, and ability to play super-fast, brilliantly. But what really distinguishes his playing is its effect on the listener. There is an immediate connection between his cello playing and those lucky enough to be in the audience. It’s that personal connection, that passion and musical charisma, that not only wins competitions, but people’s hearts as well.