The Newport recital debut of Spanish cellist Asier Polo Tuesday evening (at the Breakers) enticingly promised a chance to hear the Shostakovich Cello Sonata for the second time in as many weeks (under the hands of different performers), as well as an opportunity to check out an artist who has made a significant name for himself in Europe but not that much in the US. We were rewarded on both counts.
With his compatriot and long-time NMF pianist Daniel del Pino, Polo began with an unapologetically bravura reading of Bach’s Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1029, originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord. The opening Vivace came with plenty of pep and spring, and dare we say even a few rough edges for grit, all of it perfectly calculated. Polo proved a master of détaché bowing in numerous variations, while del Pino proffered a fluid and fluent counterweight. The well-matched collaborators unreeled the Adagio as a master lesson in shapely phrasing and soaring lyricism coupled with a rhythmic freedom wedded to a firm sense of decorum. The finale overflowed with Apollonian playfulness and vigor.
After having heard the the Czech duo of Jiří Bárta and Terezie Fialová perform Shostakovich’s Sonata in D Minor, op. 40 in the Breakers on July 9 [my review here], we thought it would be near impossible for any other twosome to match the thrill we got; but while Polo and del Pino’s later essay was different in character (as we had hoped), it proved no less compelling. To indulge in a gross oversimplification, while Bárta’s take left you creeping, Polo’s left you weeping. Polo and del Pino did not often rise up from sepulchral quietude to roaring menace, but it sang of heartache (in the lyric theme of the first movement and the passion of the third) and crackled with rough energy (a very Beethovenian yet unmistakably Shostakovian second movement scherzo). The upthrusting minor third featured in the slow movement seemed here not a reproof but an unanswerable question. The finale, with its deliberately tawdry tune, was in Polo and del Pino’s hands a slightly mischievous (well, maybe not so slightly) mock happy ending. Still, it proved the perfect vehicle for Polo’s extravagant variety of bowing (and plucking) effects.
The closer, the ultra-Romantic swashbuckling Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor, op. 19, highlighted the well-chosen variety of expression this program evinced. Even Rachmaninoff avoided calling this a cello sonata, in recognition that it’s almost more of a piano concerto with the cello as the orchestra’s stand-in (it was written in 1901, contemporaneously with his phenomenally successful second piano concerto). It is nevertheless irresistible; Polo has recorded it, as one does, albeit not with del Pino. With the latter now even more prominently displayed (not that he was a shrinking violet before), the duo brought a fine mix of passion and rhythmic drive to the first movement (we note in passing that for the slow introduction, Polo began his ever-varying and expressive vibrato even before he started playing, a nice effect). Whereas he didn’t do it that much in the Shostakovich, here Polo made much of short-term dynamic shading, going from a whisper to a shout, sometimes on the same note. Del Pino impressed with many meaty licks while impressing by not over-pedaling. We were mightily impressed at how his fffs retained fine tone. The scherzo (again in the second slot), is mercurial, fierce and tender. Polo was commendably restrained, here and throughout, in his use of portamento in the lyric moments. Likewise, the slow movement, big and lush as it is, got a tastefully subtle presentation using dynamic shading more than big bowing effects, and deference to the composer’s own methods: Rachmaninoff was perhaps second only to Schubert in what he could wring from a simple major-to-minor sequence. The finale of this piece is its most problematic part, and it’s where it really falls down. Oh, it’s full of busyness and grand gestures, but like the baseball pitcher who has just thrown a shutout, a one-hitter and a no-hitter, the next one better be a perfect game—and this one isn’t. Having rolled over us with big lyric tunes in the first three movements, Rachmaninoff in the finale just doesn’t surpass them. Still, Polo and del Pino gave it their all: splendid contrasts, big sound, bravura climaxes, lingering plummy phrases. If it was not fully convincing, it wasn’t their fault.
This concert was of a type one does not often enough find on the summer music scene: a really masterfully played, well thought-out, sustained artistic effort by two first-rate performers who take their collaboration seriously. We’re informed that Polo and del Pino had rehearsed the program in Spain before the NMF began, and touched up once they were here. Audiences deserve as much, and thankfully got it this time.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.