Andrew Mark’s recital of Martinu, Beethoven, Harbison and Strauss at Seully Hall of the Boson Conservatory Sunday was a marvel of virtuosic understatement and elegant restraint. The opener, accompanied on the piano with great elan and penetrating musical intelligence by the gifted Max Levinson, was Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovakian theme.” From 1959, the last year of the composer’s life, the Slovakian Variations initially presents its folk theme melodramaticly, but quickly ensnare its thematic material with musical complexities in the form of delicate syncopations combined with legato and percussive contrasts in the cello and piano. Mark’s rhythmic accuracy, precise intonation, and masterful phrasing were evident within moments of the cello’s first entrance, and on display thereafter pretty much for the duration. While Martinu’s bare-knuckled, middle-European musical language, simultaneously clever, playful, ironic, and elegiac, allowed the performers to explore a musical idiom calling for precision and balance, the closer, the opus 6 cello sonata by the 17 year old Richard Strauss, called for more sympathetic interpretation. This music is technically proficient, if at times labored in the outer movements. A fugue is dutifully trotted out in the first movement, in much the same spirit as fugues appear in the early string quartets of Felix Mendelsohn—mostly as homage to Beethoven. Schumann appears to hover over the proceedings as well, though not with the propulsive, antic spirit that that composer brought to his own music. Only in the slow middle movement when the composer allows the musical texture to thin out and simplify are his expressive and compositional resources aligned. A dirge-like passage recurs throughout the movement interspersed with sections in which the musical material is developed in slow, arcing cello lines filled out with simple, dark harmonies on the keyboard. Toward the end of the movement the music slips from minor briefly into a major key, which, as sometimes happens with Schubert, does little to lighten the mood. Mark and Levinson gave a straight, unhurried reading without drawing undue attention to the weaknesses in the young composer’s creation.
The evening’s only solo cello piece came after intermission: John Harbison’s Suite for Cello composed in 1994 during his stay in Rome. Bach’s set of six suites for solo cello must daunt and haunt any composer of solo cello works. These suites progressing as they do from easier to harder keys, from relative simplicity in the early suites to devilish complexity in the latter ones, seem to have pedagogic goals, not so different from Bach’s sets of preludes and fugues for keyboard. The challenge for subsequent composers writing for solo cello is to breathe music into cello lines that might otherwise be construed as belonging to etudes. Harbison does not completely avoid this trap, though Mark brilliantly set up the opening passages with a lyrical account that uncovered the music lurking in the notes. Over the course of four movements the challenges inherent in the medium leave the musical fabric threadbare at times as virtuosic passages pile up without seeming to really add up to much.
What should have been the final work in the program came before intermission: Beethoven’s haunting Sonata for Piano and Cello in C Major Op. 102, situated at the gateway of Beethoven’s astonishing late style with its open sonorities, unexpected gestures, and immersive, abstract textures. Would Beethoven have admired the duo’s bravura style which drew attention to itself? It’s not hard to see this sonata as a kind of musical prayer into which the players’ egos, personalities, and musical styles are subsumed—this was the kind of reading of the music offered by Mark and Levinson. The turbulent allegro after the slow introduction of the first movement sweeps along in a way that much of Beethoven’s late music does; in the end, the animus is not really personal, it exists outside the players and the audience as a thing to be wondered at. Mark’s close reading, bereft of idiosyncrasies, rhythmically and stylistically disciplined, left the audience to grapple with the marvelous phenomenon of the music itself. This kind of pared-down minimalist approach honors the music in the extreme, but can only be delivered through consummate artistry and intense musicality.