Friday, January 12, 2018

Cello sonatas from three centuries at the SBCMS

Clive Greensmith.
The Greensmith – Nam Duo play Boccherini, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, and Prokofiev

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Beth Nam.
There is an undeniable skill, art even, in program-building, and much mutual illumination can result from juxtaposing works from different eras. Sometimes, however, a straightforward chronological arrangement is just fine, and this – tracing ‘cello/keyboard repertoire through more than a century and three-quarters – was what the English ‘cellist Clive Greensmith and Korean pianist Beth Nam supplied for the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s first recital of the year. 

Boccherini playing the 'cello.
Boccherini’s Cello Sonata in A major G.4 was composed in Vienna sometime before 1764, and early versions of what was published as his No.6 (out of a lifetime total of 37 ‘cello sonatas) have the accompaniment as a single continuo bass line. Later editions elaborated this into a full keyboard part, in which form the work entered the repertoire.

In at least one of these editions the third, Affetuoso, movement was dropped, and it was this two-movement form that the Duo played. It was a delectable performance, adding some romantic sensibility in the form of generous rubato to an otherwise airborne and fluent account of a piece that mingles baroque and classical characteristics, with Mr. Greensmith demonstrating for the first time the exceptionally clean and light passagework that would characterize his playing throughout the recital.

Beethoven in 1801.
A generation-and-some later in 1801, the still relatively young Beethoven looked back a decade to one of Mozart’s last masterpieces in his Seven Variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” from The Magic Flute, WoO46. In its concision and invention, it’s typical of the many smaller variation sets in Beethoven’s output – gifts for recitalists, a rich resource of “stocking-fillers” to round out programs otherwise devoted to weightier fare. 

Mozart’s source is a duet but not a conventional love duet: Papageno and Pamina are each destined for other partners, but here join in praising the virtues of married love. Beethoven’s variations carry on the conversation with the two instruments as protagonists, from amiable accord in the statement of the theme and the first variation; through jocular questions and responses, and contemplation variously reflective, wistful and serene, in variations two to six; to cheerful acceptance in the last. The polished and responsive playing of the Greensmith – Nam Duo duly reflected and relished all these quicksilver changes of mood. 

Modern reconstruction
of an arpeggione.
The excellent program notes by Dr. Bóglarka Kiss on the SBCMS website (a pity that economics seem to preclude a print version) included a link to a YouTube post of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D.821 actually being played on that obsolete stringed instrument, accompanied by a pianoforte of the time. Maybe it was just that particular account, but the effect to my ears was of something far more fragile and lugubrious than the work normally sounds when played, as it almost always is, on a modern ‘cello. Certainly Mr. Greensmith’s performance with Ms. Nam, starting at a reasonable Allegro moderato as marked, was far less somber at the outset and grew positively joyous when they came to Schubert’s delectably skipping second subject.

This is not to say that their performance lacked depth and poignancy, to which Mr. Greensmith’s sparing use of vibrato in the first movement coda only added. This sonata is one amongst literally dozens of works in Schubert’s output that give the lie to any canard that as a master of the song-form he stumbled over multi-movement sonata structures. An Adagio as brief as it is beautiful leads directly to the Allegretto finale, the two movements together being shorter than the spacious first movement if its exposition repeat is played, as it was (praise be!) here. Another high point of this performance was that attacca from slow movement to finale, the sense of rapt contemplation held through into the latter’s opening theme, so that thoughtfulness lingered where usually straightforward high spirits prevail. 

Debussy in 1908.
After a first half that pivoted around the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, the second half landed firmly in the 20th, with two late masterpieces both composed under difficult circumstances. Debussy’s 1915 Cello Sonata in D minor L.135 was written in the shadow of the cancer that would kill him and with the threat of siege hanging over Paris, while by the time Prokofiev composed his Cello Sonata in C major Op.119 in 1949 he also was suffering chronic ill-health, as well as being under the cloud of official Soviet disapproval for “formalism”. 

Aside from that, the two sonatas are very different, the Prokofiev being around double the length of the Debussy and with a much more elaborate sectional structure, though both are in three movements. The Greensmith – Nam Duo emphasized internal coherence with very short breaks between movements, and enhanced the enigmatic, aphoristic character of the Debussy with a strongly improvisatory sense, particularly in the almost frenetic rhapsodizing of the first movement’s central section, and the pizzicato writing that dominates the middle Sérénade movement. 

Prokofiev, with Mstislav Rostropovich, in 1952.
In his introductory comments on the Prokofiev, Mr. Greensmith frankly acknowledged the challenge of making the disparate episodes of the long first movement hang together, but he and his partner proved its equal, relishing alike Prokofiev’s indelible melodic memorability and the virtuosity demanded by some of the writing, notably the ‘cello’s tumultuous arpeggios before the quiet oscillations with which the movement draws to its conclusion. 

After this, the second, Moderato, movement functions as a kind of scherzo, with a staccato, mirthless, seeming parody of circus music framing a rhapsodic melody on the ‘cello. The finale is more complex in structure, alternating between eloquent melody, rumbustious “parade-ground” music, and rapt withdrawal. In the end the parade-ground wins out but – as ever with Soviet composers – the question as to whether this is genuine celebration or ironic commentary remains unresolved. Either way, both instruments punched out the grandiloquent conclusion with vehemence and virtuosity. Cheers all round!


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, January 7, 2018.
Photos: Clive Greensmith: Colburn School; Beth Nam: website; Boccherini: oil painting by Pompeo Batoni; Beethoven: Portrait by Carl Traugott Riedel Wikimedia Commons; Arpeggione: Wikimedia Commons; Debussy: photograph by Félix Nadar; Prokofiev: Moscovery.

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