Monday, November 13, 2017

Rachmaninoff’s chamber masterpiece at Rolling Hills


"Second Sundays at Two", Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Fabio Bidini.
Andrew Shulman.
Rachmaninoff’s great Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.19 – though last performed at this series of concerts little more than a year ago (by Robert DeMaine and Kevin Kwan Loucks, and not reviewed on this blog) – returned to RHUMC last Sunday under the more than capable fingers of the Italian pianist Fabio Bidini, currently holder of the Piano Chair at Colburn Conservatory, and Andrew Shulman, principal ‘cello with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The composer is said to have disliked calling the work a “cello sonata”, preferring the title as given above due to the instruments’ equal roles – the piano definitely not merely accompanying the ‘cello – and these two expert performers ensured that balance was maintained throughout between the impulsive, chord-laden piano writing and the ‘cello, so often soaring above its companion to reflectively latch onto and extend melodic ideas first introduced on the keyboard. 

After the brooding, becalmed Lento introduction, the main body of the first of its four movements brought rather more urgency than might be expected from the overall Allegro moderato and the espressivo e tranquillo marking to the ‘cello line. This propulsiveness, however, enabled a notable easing of tempo for the moderato second subject group that is first heard on the piano alone, and I was only sorry that Rachmaninoff’s marked exposition repeat was not observed – who would not want to hear two-and-a-half minutes of such gorgeous music a second time, especially as it is relatively complex thematically, and when the composer takes the trouble to write in a “first time” lead-back measure?

Rachmaninoff in 1909, a few years after writing
his Cello Sonata and Second Piano Concerto.
The ensuing scherzo and slow movement, relatively expansive and surprisingly brief respectively, both carry plenty of melodic hints that this sonata is coeval with the Second Piano Concerto, also written in 1901 and just one opus number lower in Rachmaninoff’s output, and this is even more the case when the finale arrives, dominated as it is by a lyrical second subject that is quite the equal in romantic memorability of its counterpart in the concerto.

Indeed, for my money, this sonata as a whole surpasses the concerto in variety of mood and structural tautness. Messrs Bidini and Shulman played as if they had been duo partners for years rather than the months which is apparently the case, and their emphatic, spot-on synchronized delivery of the fortissimo conclusion, marcato at its very end, brought the capacity audience to its feet (is there a more guaranteed full-house composer than Rachmaninoff, in southern California at least?).

Copper engraving of Beethoven in 1801.
One of the pleasures of these series of short (i.e. up to around one hour) concerts masterminded by the South Bay’s chamber music impresario, Jim Eninger, is that you so often come across something you have not listened to previously amongst the short fill-up items programmed either as a curtain-raiser to or an encore following the familiar main work. Sadly there was no time for an encore last Sunday but the duo’s opening item made up for it.

I had never before heard Beethoven’s 12 Variations for piano and cello on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45, so it was a joy to discover a further example of his skill – in 1796, relatively early in his career – at extracting so much musical juice from a simple melody with such inventiveness, wit, and concision. 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, November 12, 2017.
Photos: Fabio Bidini: Courtesy Phoenix Symphony; Andrew Shulman: Shawn Flint Blair; Rachmaninoff: Portrait by Robert Sterl, ©picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library; Beethoven: Beethoven-Haus, Bonn. 

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