Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Cello/Piano Masterworks by Schumann and Grieg

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, Southern California.


Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

In relation to his celebrated outputs for orchestra and for solo piano, chamber music is not a genre within Edward Grieg’s oeuvre that initially comes to mind as comparable to them, but—as is also the case with Rachmaninoff—amongst that relatively small corpus of chamber works there is a single cello sonata that stands as one of his most imposing and deeply-felt utterances.

Grieg in 1888.
There are (at least) two surviving autograph manuscripts of Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 36, one dated 1882 and the other 1883—a period of both professional frustration and domestic discord for the composer. Both manuscripts clearly head the sonata as “for piano and cello”—an indication that Grieg considered the piano as at least the cello’s equal in conveying the work’s expressive content, and firmly banishing any notion of a mere “accompaniment.”

This was certainly clear right from the start of the performance that formed the main item in Classical Crossroads' March “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, when pianist Svetlana Smolina’s urgent articulation of the opening ostinato figure hit the ground running at a true Allegro agitato, close to Grieg’s metronome of half note=100, and thereby launched cellist Evgeny Tonkha’s comparably tensile statement of the movement’s main theme.

Title-page of the 1883 score, with
dedication at the top to John Grieg,
the composer's amateur cellist brother.
Some commentators on this sonata have dwelt on its melodiousness and charm, but anyone anticipating a soothing evocation of Norwegian landscape would have had expectations rudely shattered by this performance, particularly the first movement, whose elaborately tempestuous piano part notably recalls that of the Piano Concerto in the same key (but here suggesting that the sonata might be reworked successfully as a cello concerto, which in fact has happened—some of it can be heard on YouTube).

The duo encompassed fully the extremes of expressive scope that Grieg builds into his score, ranging from the molto più tranquillo of the second subject to the con fuoco and strepitoso-driven development, with its almost hysterical stretto climax that spills over via a short cello cadenza into the recapitulation. And Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha still had enough left in the tank to follow Grieg’s demands to accelerate on into the coda at his marked presto, and then prestissimo.

The relatively brief central slow movement begins in deceptive quietude, Ms. Smolina here following in her statement of the main theme the spirit of Grieg’s Andante molto tranquillo heading rather than his very slow metronome mark. But the skies soon darken, and the players as before gave full expression to the tense storm at the movement’s core before its return to tranquillity.

Even more successful, perhaps, was the finale, which in lesser hands can sometimes seem (all 828 measures of it!) tediously discursive and over-elaborate, as if Grieg were trying too hard to prove that he was a master of form as well as of melody and mood. In this performance, however, their infectiously skipping treatment of the opening was never far from the movement’s many twists and turns, capping a volatile and vivid performance of the whole sonata.

1847 lithograph of Robert and Clara Schumann.
The heart-on-sleeve passion and turmoil of the Grieg was preceded by music of a very different sensibility and emotional tenor. In the first of Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Op. 73 (the whole work reputedly written in just two days in February 1849), Mr. Tonkha and Ms. Smolina hit what seemed exactly the right note of intimate confiding to match its Zart und mit Ausdruck (Tender and with expression) marking, the mood of which is sustained into the Lebhaft, leicht (Lively, light) second movement despite its faster pace.

Only in the third piece, Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire), did I feel, as in other performances, that the original designation of the work for clarinet rather than cello works better in certain passages, where fluid upward runs in the former instrument become seemingly a little effortful on the latter.

This, however, did not detract from the duo's idiomatic and penetrating account of the whole work, a miniature masterpiece whose indivisibility—despite its somewhat offhand designation as merely "pieces"—was emphasized by the performers' careful observation of the attacca markings that link them. The entire splendid recital can now be enjoyed online at this Vimeo link.

It was good to be able, after the recital, to introduce Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha to Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Clara and Robert Schumann. Resident for many years in Orange County, she is keen to become more familiar with the music of her illustrious forebears through local performances such as this, as well as talking with musicians about how their interest in the Schumanns developed and what they see as their legacy. 

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha with Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield.

“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, March 3, 2023.
Images: Grieg and the Schumanns: Wikimedia Commons; Grieg score: IMSLP; the performers: author.

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