Sol Gabetta is a cellist whose distinctive style emerges across the larger spans of movements, whole works, and even entire programs. Yes, she has a beautiful tone, a broad palette of colors, and a knack for lyrical phrasing, but this just describes the surface of her cool, analytical interpretations.
On Wednesday night, Gabetta played a weighty, sometimes chilling recital for the Celebrity Series Debut Series in Longy’s Pickman Hall. This was the Argentine cellist’s first Boston concert, but one would think her international career—which includes regular appearances with major European orchestras, recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Sony, and an engaging media presence in at least three languages—would land her on one of the series’ main stages. Although Pickman Hall can work well as an intimate venue, it felt more like a cramped box than the natural habitat for this artist.
The heart of the program was Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C Major, premiered by Rostropovich in 1961, and quite possibly the grimmest piece ever composed in that usually cheerful key. Gabetta, with French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, played the twisty, troubled Dialogo with steely poise—delivering a frightening musical argument through a tightly controlled facade. The Scherzo‑pizzicato movement was sardonic, and the Elegia beautiful, yet discomforting. The Marcia stood out for its haunting glissando harmonics, executed by the cellist with otherworldly clarity, and answered by a breath from a listener in the packed hall.
The recital’s second half was given to Chopin’s Sonata in G Minor. Chamayou equaled Gabetta in this piano-heavy work, which the two recently recorded together. Gabetta found more freedom here than in the Britten, but never approached the improvisatory style sometimes favored in Chopin. Instead, she underlined the music’s bigger structures, sculpting phrases with lyric precision through all the varied voices of her cello’s dusky baritone, rich tenor, and transparent soprano ranges.
The program had opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 in F Major, whose lean classicism was a less obvious match for Gabetta’s talents than the subsequent midcentury and Romantic works. In the first minutes of Beethoven’s opening Adagio, it seemed like she was just finding her footing, but it soon became clear this was with purpose, holding back before the two energetic Allegro movements. She knows how to pace herself, and a cold start can be a bold choice to open a concert.
The recital ended, regrettably, without encores, but hopefully Gabetta will return soon to one of Boston’s bigger stages. Although she has the same awards and slick photos as most younger soloists, she is of a different order: Her playing is smart, assured, and all her own.
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer based in Boston.