Saturday night the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts brought cellist Bion Tsang and pianist Adam Neiman to Jordan Hall with a wonderfully innovative program.
Ernö Dohnányi’s took inspiration from Liszt and Brahms, and their influences are manifest in the Sonata in B-flat Major, op. 8 (1899), a virtuosic, taxing both cello and piano as it encompasses the scope of both symphony and concerto. The tessitura for cello sits awkwardly where neck and thumb positions meet. The great difficulty here, as in so much Romantic music for cello (I think especially of Chopin’s sonata), is in the pacing and dynamics; often played for loudness and declamation, the build in intensity peaks too soon and the performance can be unsatisfying. Tsang and Neiman navigated these shoals successfully, collaborating with grace and ease to present a subtle reading of this work that was softer and more ruminative in character from the start of the opening Allegro ma non troppo. The Scherzo seems a prefiguration of de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance with its rapid shimmering sounds; the Trio section is more melodic, less intensely playful. The Adagio non troppo took on the nature of a berceuse and called to mind the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata, before leading, attaca, into the Tema con variazioni finale. The form and the writing here recall Beethoven’s variations, but here with a jazzy edge. Each new iteration seemed Dohnányi’s response to the idiom of another composer. It was wonderful to hear this work which infrequently graces our concert halls, even though the writing seems more the product of a composer searching for his voice, and writing at a time when the cello is still finding its leading voice as a solo instrument. It is precisely this unsettling aspect of the sonata which makes it an important witness in the history of the form.
From one foray into the creation of a musical language we turned to another: Benjamin Britten’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, op. 65. Britten knew his compositional voice, but seemed to struggle with capturing it in musical notation. Reading his works I am struck by the wealth of information on the page and feel as though I am learning to read all over again. Fortunately for all of us, Tsang and Neiman are more self-assured. This sonata opens with silence, which is just as important as the notes. The theme encompasses the full range of the cello. Tsang displayed a mesmerizing command of the lower dynamics and register of the cello in the five-movement sonata that seems also to take the form of a suite. The Dialogo (Allegro) opening establishes the interplay of equal voices between instruments, along with the oscillation between major and minor modalities. The humorous Scherzo-pizzicato recalls writing for the guitar. The Elegia builds from nothing to anguish, as the quiescence of death yields to rage against the dying light. Then that elegiac feeling, constant companion of all who have lost, returns. Marcia recalls the wry humor of Britten’s friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, notably with the glissandi harmonics at the end sounding an imitation of slide whistles. The concluding Moto perpetuo returns to the pizzicato theme of the Scherzo, even as it becomes a study in dropping—dropping fingers on strings, bow on strings, in fleet and coordinated yet seemingly easy fashion. It is difficult not to hear the outsized and gruff personality of Rostropovich in this music—dedicatee, first performer, reference recorder with Britten at the keys. Tsang and Neiman made it their own in a highly effective reading.
The concert concluded with the evening’s most canonic work: Grieg’s Sonata in A Minor, op. 36. A traditional three-movement piece dedicated to his brother John, it captures the turmoil of the composer’s life circa 1882. The Allegro agitato opens in passion and angst, riffing on Norwegian folk music and incorporating his signature “Grieg motif” (C-B-G). The Andante molto tranquillo embraces pastoral calm and passionate drive, before a peaceful coda. A brief bridge leads into the concluding Allegro where once more traditional tunes vie with Romantic at music. Lately we hear a lot about hygge, the Scandinavian concept of cozy comfort, Heimlich in another clime. Grieg embraced this notion of music that is inhabitable rather than monumental. In this sonata, we hear the warmth, the comfort, the love of an amiable home and functional family. By turns calm and excited, boisterous and bereft, stentorian and sexy, this is music capturing the plenitude of a life. The performers crafted a lovely home and shared it with us all here.
Recalled to the stage, they treated us to the Ponce/Heifetz Estrellita as an encore.
I applaud the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts for the coup in bringing Bion Tsang to Boston, and its prudence in the pairing him with his frequent collaborator Adam Neiman.