Rockport Chamber Music’s last “Rising Star” of 2015, cellist Cicely Parnas, appeared with pianist Noreen Polera on Tuesday. Winner of the the 2012 Young Concerts Artists International Auditions, the 20-something Parnas carries some years’ experience: as a granddaughter of famed cellist Leslie Parnas, she began studying as a tot and has been performing for at least ten years, now often with her violinist sister Madalyn as the Duo Parnas. Polera is a distinguished collaborative artist and chamber musician who has worked with many of the top names, and toured and recorded extensively. Parnas bears a slight resemblance to the legendary Jacqueline du Pré, and seemed to be emphasizing that effect, especially in the way she wore her ginger hair. As to performing style, well, that’s a different story.
The duo began with Beethoven’s first (well, first or second, nobody is really sure) cello sonata, the f major op. 5 no. 1, a curious two-movement work written, as was its companion, for one or the other of the court cellists (some confusion about that as well) to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, this being part of Beethoven’s grand tour under the patronage of Prince Lichnowsky. It is probably fair to say that nobody at the court, or pretty much anywhere else, had heard sonatas like these before, especially for the cello. Although it dispenses with the slow middle movement, it begins with a grand slow introduction with some startling Beethovenian phrase discontinuities and harmonic shifts that do not stop once the first movement enters its sonata-allegro phase. Likewise the finale, though not as (deliberately) disjoint, displays many traits, such as off-accent sforzandi and rhythmically deceptive phrasing, that one would instantly recognize as echt Beethoven.
Interpretively, one can play this 1796 piece as an extension of Mozartean Classicism, with an Apollonian detachment, or as closely as one can get away with to mid-period Beethoven. The du Pré-Barenboim recording from 1970 (pre-MS) seems to tilt to the latter, as does this 30-year-old live performance by Ma and Ax. Parnas and Polera seem to have split the difference: After a sonorous but somewhat tentative opening introduction, the staccato allegro opening was fairly timid, and in general an air of detachment seemed pervasive. Not that there wasn’t much to admire: Parnas’s intonation was perfect, her middle and upper ranges unforced, her choice of articulations quite satisfying, and there were moments when her sound (where Beethoven specifies that it all be done on the C string) and that of the piano blended into one. While Polera’s precision was immaculate and her tone crystalline, her movements and facial expression bespoke engagement with the music. Parnas was more poker-faced, which isn’t a bad thing, contrasting mightily with du Pré and the young Ma, but while the latter has now transferred all that energy to the sound his bow makes, we think Parnas has a way to go in that respect. She performs, so her website relates, on a 1712 Giovanni Grancino instrument; the string boffins among you might be able to ascertain from that information whether one should expect a big or a light sound.
The first half ended with three movements from The Zodiac, for cello solo, a work written for Parnas by Peter John, a youngish composer (b. 1983) with a degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and now in the DMA program at the University of Minnesota, who is actually better known as a classical and jazz pianist, but whose compositions branch into both acoustic and electronic media. Parnas has worked with John over several years; her performance of his cello sonata can be seen here (and follow the proffered link for the second movement). From that example you can see that John is definitely within the neo-tonalist camp, but The Zodiac gives no doubt that he is writing music of the current era. In her onstage introduction to the work, Parnas allowed as how John was taking a holistic, rather than a pictorial, approach to the three signs in the current excerpt, which is the first part of a set comprising all 12. “Virgo” is meant to have a “spacey” affect, and it certainly conveys it well with its opening of alternating harmonics and ordinario (a motif that recurs). There are plenty of charming sound effects (strummed chords, double-stopped slides, etc.) that punctuate a line that comes across like recitative, or perhaps arioso. On this occasion, Parnas dropped her reserve, and played with romance and passion. The second movement (the three were performed attacca), “Aquarius,” is like a sarabande with a low extension, then back to the spaciness of Virgo. This too was beautifully rendered, evoking the undulating sheets of the northern lights (maybe it was supposed to invoke water, but with the real thing visible out the Shalin Liu window, we preferred to gaze upward). The finale pro tempore, “Taurus,” was definitely the bull in the china shop, a toccata that reminded us of the finale of Barber’s violin concerto, with Parnas’s ferocity appropriate to the occasion. A feature of this movement was that it required in-flight scordatura, so that Parnas could conveniently execute the final B-flat minor chord, a fine touch of showmanship for both the composer and performer.
After intermission, Parnas and Polera began with the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time” “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” seems to have taken on a life of its own, like “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals; and while it is a haunting and lovely work of stasis in the midst of fury, taking it out of context robs it of much of its power and shock value. That said, the performers did it up well, with Parnas bringing a fine singing tone and Polera an unflappable calm to the repeated chordal accompaniment. There wasn’t quite enough mystical intensity for our taste, but the morendo closing was perfect.
The final work, Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38, begun when the composer was only 29, is nevertheless imbued with that feeling of great age and experience that he seemed to have been born with. The first two movements being each in a moderate tempo, no real slow movement was necessary (Brahms had written one, but threw it out); the middle movement is one of Brahms’s little jokes, a “minuet” of an intensity that belies the name. A lot of younger performers approach the work of the younger Brahms with fire in their bellies, but this sonata has such interiority that only the most intimate approaches works properly (except for the finale, where Brahms finally acknowledges that someone else might be listening). Parnas and Polera didn’t quite make the sale, but their opening was sonorous, well phrased, with an appropriately unhurried tempo. Polera staked her claim on the second subject of the first movement with warmth and caresses; otherwise, despite the technical excellence of the playing, we felt that it was too distant and not in the heart of the music. The finale, a more public utterance, gave a better opportunity, which the players seized on, to make a bigger statement, with the sort of urgency that makes for big applause (which it received).
Our notes on the Messiaen really did analogize it to “The Swan” before Parnas and Polera gave the real thing as an encore. They played it well, but a more imaginative selection would have been preferable.