IN: Reviews

Elegiac Cello in a Country Church


Rafael Popper-Keizer (file photo)
Rafael Popper-Keizer (file photo)

The much-admired Boston-based cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer appeared in a solo recital under the auspices of Monadnock Music Sunday in the sweltering but lovely Emmanuel Church in Dublin, New Hampshire. Adorned with five gorgeous Tiffany stained-glass windows, the church was packed with local admirers who all seemed to know and to adore their festival cellist.

Giving a solo recital on any instrument in this kind of oppressive heat and humidity is a challenge, but Popper-Keizer handled it valiantly, especially when, after the first piece, the lights all went out and he had to read his music in the near-dark. Unruffled, he carried on with a smile until the electricity was restored just in time for his third piece.

Known affectionately as Rafi, Popper-Keizer is widely acknowledged to be one of Boston’s busiest (and best) freelancers. I have long admired his playing as the superb cellist of the Chameleon Ensemble. For his unaccompanied recital, he chose rarely, if ever, performed pieces by well-known composers, several unquestionably influenced by J.S. Bach, whose Suite No. 5 in C Minor ended the program.

Opening with the five-movement Ernest Bloch’s (1957) Suite #3 for solo cello, Popper-Keizer declared he had never heard or heard of a single live performance. It’s hard to understand the utter lack of popularity of this piece; it was mostly modal with simple harmonies, very simple-sounding, but quite lovely, with hints of Bach everywhere. It was nice to have this piece rescued from the dust-bin of recital programs and played with such a winning performance.

The same can be said of the next piece, Eugene Ysaÿe’s four-movement Sonata for Unaccompanied Violincello (sic) op. 28 (1924). Ysaÿe, who was Bloch’s teacher in Brussels, is best known for his popular virtuoso compositions for violin. I cannot remember ever hearing or hearing of this piece being performed. There is an intense, haunting third movement adagio and a fourth movement Allegro tempo fermo, thrilling played with great gusto. In the newly dark church, Popper-Kaiser explained that this cello piece was “not quite as gnarly as his violin pieces.” But it was a piece I was glad to have heard (especially played by this cellist) and would be happy to hear again.

The last piece on the first half, Julie-O, was composed by Mark Summer, the multi-faceted cellist of the Turtle Island Quartet, in 1988. It was quite pleasant and full of fun technical stuff (challenges met) and I was sorry when it ended after only about four minutes.

George Perle’s Hebrew Melodies for unaccompanied cello were, not insignificantly, written in 1945, just after the near-annihilation of European Jewry. The first melody is based on Psalm 93 (“Sing to the Lord a new song”). The more engrossing second, “Cantillation,” refers to the chant used in synagogues for prayers and Torah readings. Through the cello’s voice, we hear the human voice in piercing lament and despair. It received a heartfelt, deeply moving performance. Next was a piece with an odd history, John Corigliano’s “Fancy on a Bach Air (1996), a piece unlike anything this composer has ever written. In 1996, Corigliano and several other composers were asked to write a piece for two friends’ wedding anniversary (I overheard an audience member say the couple lived in Newton). The composer cites both of his two friends (the husband passed away suddenly after this was written) and Bach’s Suites for solo cello as his inspiration for this short piece written as an unmeasured prelude, harmonically based on the Goldberg Variations.

Finally, our heroic cellist retuned so two strings would be Gs (scordatora tuning, CGDG rather than the usual CGDA) increasing the resonance of certain notes for one of Bach’s many works of genius, Suite no. 5 for Unaccompanied Cello in C Minor. My in-house expert explained that if you use the standard cello tuning, approximately two dozen changes have to be made in the text to allow for playing the double and triple stops. It was particularly satisfying hearing this work of genius last, after hearing so many lesser pieces that were written under its influence. Here, then, was the real thing, in a soulful performance. The two Gavotte were wonderfully spirited, while the Sarabande was simple yet wrenching.

Popper-Keizer is not a show-offy, fussy, or flamboyant performer. Yesterday he seemed to be performing for the sheer soulful joy of playing this music, acting as a conduit for the composer’s thoughts. This audience adored him. And this reviewer loved hearing so many engaging, virtually unknown pieces. While the music might not have always been first-rate, Popper-Keizer made a strong case for everything he championed with his natural musicality.

Monadnock Music’s Festival continues through August 25th.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

Comments Off on Elegiac Cello in a Country Church