In concert: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40; Hamilton Cheifetz and Janet Guggenheim, March 3, 2011

I hadn’t previously been to any of the Portland State University music department’s performances, but fortunately I work only a few blocks from Lincoln Hall and was able to walk up there for a free afternoon recital yesterday, which turned out to be a really agreeable way to spend a long lunch break.  The performers were cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, on faculty at PSU, and pianist Janet Guggenheim, a longtime collaborator with him in the Florestan Trio.  Together they put on a great show, first a short and relatively earthy Haydn divertimento (assembled and arranged from the composer’s baryton works by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) and then Shostakovich’s 1934 sonata.  The audience, besides a good number of chamber music-loving citizens, mostly senior, included many PSU music students, there under varying degrees of academic compulsion (the back of the single-sheet program was in fact a question-and-answer comment sheet for the schools Performance Attendance course — “Tardiness and/or early leave will affect your grade”) and filled Lincoln Hall’s basement recital space just about to capacity, a casual but engaged crowd.

The Shostakovich sonata, along with The Golden Age, is a work that I’m happy to have become newly aware of during this blogging process, and Cheifetz and Guggenheim gave a lovely and focused account of it.  Cheifetz drew out the romance of the first movement, especially the sweeping second theme, but also followed it into the dark, brooding space at the center of the movement, an atmosphere later reproduced in the somber third movement; in contrast, he bit off the second movement’s biting staccato rhythms and fast pizzicato runs with force.  Guggenheim played a well balanced piano part, falling into an accompanyist’s role when needed and springing into the musical foreground with a clean and dry sound perfect both for Shostakovich’s pellucid melodies and for his impish theater-piano outbursts.  The last movement came off here as a genuinely lighthearted finale, the energy less jangly than gymnastic and the music pointing back to the piano concerto, taking pleasure in its own humor and movement.

It was just really fine music-making, with a pleasantly loose recital atmosphere.  The elderly woman sitting next to me offered me a piece of jicama from a zip-lock baggie; Guggenheim’s page turner, presumably a student, grinned to herself at the piano’s explosive entries in the fast movements; Cheifetz, receiving his applause at the end, briefly holding up his cello as though to acknowledge his instrument, or perhaps cellos in general.

On a weekend trip to New York City a couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I absolutely scoured the hall of dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History, and since then my metaphorical thinking has been completely dominated by evolutionary biology.  Thus I inevitably compared the sonata, as I was listening to it, to a coelacanth, a musical specimen that suggests the body plan of later-developing works while retaining a number of “primitive” features.  (As museum placards and Wikipedia entries tend to disclaim, “primitive” is not really a fair word to use here; like the fish, the sonata survives, if somewhat obscurely, on its own merits.)  The pattern of the sonata’s central movements — the fleet-footed but anxious and grim dance, followed by a dark, slowly building movement that form’s the work’s emotional center — repeats itself many times in Shostakovich’s later chamber and orchestral works.  Also, the sonata’s more straightforwardly presented melodies and harmonies set up Shostakovich’s more conventional, abruptly adopted style in the fifth symphony (when I wrote up the Pushkin romances earlier this week I failed to mention the sonata’s place in this development, at least as a precedent).  But the sonata obviously belongs to the style of the works, especially the piano works, that came before it, too; Shostakovich’s passages of musical development, while engaging, feel comparatively shallow, without the clarified intensity that comes later in his output, and the punchy piano part sounds for stretches like it’s been lifted from the 24 Preludes or the piano concerto, rather than carried forward along with the cello part.  It’s a noteworthy link within Shostakovich’s stylistic history, and more importantly it’s a deeply enjoyable piece of music outside of the context of the composer’s many better-known works.

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