Adding powerful lumens to a languid summer solstice evening by the sea, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey animated works by Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, and Brahms on Saturday night at Shalin Liu. Among the capacity audience was both Paul Katz (one of Wispelwey’s teachers) and Lawrence Lesser, as the cello high tribunal of Boston.
Alongside the refined and well-paired artistry of Pei-Shan Lee, piano and Benjamin Bowman, violin, Wispelwey communicated his musical intentions through both sound and physical gestures that created an enthralling performance atmosphere. Some artists seem to thrive in the recording studio, while others in live performance. The evening demonstrated Wispelwey’s virtuosity as one of the great communicative performing artists of his generation.
The concert started with a transcription (Wispelwey’s own?) of Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat Major for Piano and Viola, Op. 120/2 in the original tessitura (a high-achieving feat for a cellist!). The equally matched duo of cello and piano opened the famous melodic leaps and bounds of the first movement, Allegro amabile, with an unfussy yet extremely sensitive tenderness. With the gentle mood set, the musicians could take extra license for episodes of passion and reverie to unfold both organically and with maximum affect; the sonata form of the first movement was wonderfully transparent. Though he conceived the mood brilliantly, Wispelwey’s articulation of slurs seemed too inspired by baroque playing for the long lines and singing gestures that make Brahms’s music so timelessly appealing.
The scherzo second movement of the Brahms, Allegro appassionato, balanced the fiery A-sections with the woven lyricism of the trio. The duo showed great command of the harmonic tension. The third movement’s pastoral-like variations, Andante con moto, were a delight. The flow was entirely organic and well-timed, with a wonderful moment of d-string portamento for color at the closing of the thema. The third variation was full of great character to match the 32nd note obbligato. Wispelwey concluded the sonata with heroic fervor.
For Ravel’s masterful Sonata for Violin and Cello, violinist Benjamin Bowman, the new concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, joined Wispelwey, who now sported a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and sheet music. Again, we heard tight and immaculate ensemble, especially the timbral combination (no doubt a result of both musicians playing instruments by the Italian master Guadagnini). Bowman achieved wonderful pastel effects in the first movement, Allegro, while Wispelwey suffered from intonation in the upper register in-part due to the concerto-like demands of the piece. Both musicians gave immense energy, the content of which seemed to connect them to a place beyond words. Primal, animated facial gestures and grunts matching the musical content emerged from Wispelwey in the second movement, Très vif. Pizzicati were played percussively, in the style of Bartók. Bowman and Wispelwey went into a trance of intensity. The captivating closing of the movement brought a chuckle from the audience. The third movement, Lent, ran somber, eerie, and elegiac. In the fourth movement, Vif, avec entrain, we once again witnessed intense body language, and the ends of some phrases elicited satisfied laughs. The duo’s visceral, no-boundaries traversal brought a well-deserved standing ovation.
Post-intermission, Wispelwey again greeted the audience with French music, in his rendition of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, L. 135. His noble and eloquent opening left this cellist-writer desiring more vibrato instead of pure white-notes, and I would have enjoyed more foregrounding of the cello over the piano. After a page-turner disaster, as the entire piano-score left the instrument and launched onto the stage, Pei-Shan Lee played on without a flinch. Clearly she had this score in her head and heart. The second movement, with its famous opening pizzicati could have been groovier and more imaginative, but the interpretation maintained good spirit and contour. Unlike some cellists, Wispelwey did not shy away from using the upper regions of the second and third strings for timbrel affect, especially in the last movement, Finale: Animé.
Following a brief applause, Wispelwey played the deep tones of the seminal Brahms Sonata for Piano and Cello in E Minor, Op. 38. Wispelwey phrased with beautiful expression and freshness in this war-horse of the cello repertoire. He and Lee took the repeat of the first movement, Allegro non troppo’s exposition with melancholic nostalgia and even greater passion in its forte moments, achieving an entirely spontaneous and organic effect – different as a repeated exposition should be(!). The second movement minuet, Allegretto quasi Menuetto, was elegant and tasteful: equal parts delicate and suave. This movement again showcased Wispelwey’s ability to contrast musical textures. The third movement fugue, Allegro flew by at a fiery tempo, as the partners navigated seamless deviations in tempi to accommodate the lyrical moments. Wispelwey again entranced with outbursts of powerful expression and rhythm; his inspirational engagement kept us both aurally and visually captive. The audience gave an entirely justified standing ovation.
This recital testified to the power of risk in live performance and how an artist can give and take energy from a receptive crowd. Wispelwey, a cellist in tangible communion with this semiotic musical energy works brilliantly in the moment. Lee supported in tones both feurig und innig; Bowman was a formidable colorist, as a companion in the Ravel.
Cellist, conductor, organizer, commentator, and musical facilitator, Santa Barbara native Nicolas Sterner is the Collaborative Director and Conductor of the Chromos Collaborative Orchestra.