Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley Open the Summer Season at Tannery Pond with All-Russian Cello Sonatas

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Matt Haimovitz. Photo by Stephanie Mackinnon.
Matt Haimovitz. Photo by Stephanie Mackinnon.

Tannery Pond Concerts
May 25, 2013 at 6.00 PM

Igor StravinskySuite Italienne
Sergei Prokofiev – Sonata in C major, Op. 119
Sergei Rachmaninov – Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

Matt Haimovitz – cello
Christopher O’Riley – piano


The barn at Tannery Pond is particularly well suited to cello music — a kind of cello-within-a-cello, the musical equivalent to the old literary framing device, maybe. The instrument’s range and woody timbre are particularly appealing, even restful, resting on the ear’s most sensitive range of pitches, so it is no wonder cellists seek out such acoustics, or do things like making arrangements for 6, 8, or 10 cellos. In fact listening in the Tannery barn gives one the overwhelming urge to make music in it, even if just laying down a few purple chords on the piano — in that way perhaps Rachmaninoff is particularly well suited to the barn too. The audience did seem thrilled by Haimovitz’s and O’Riley’s playing of the young Rachmaninoff’s sonata in G minor. Rightfully enough, it was the sort of full blooded and full bodied (figuratively speaking, the musicians bodily movements were in fact very restrained) interpretation of Rachmaninoff that doesn’t spoil easily. They did take certain risks, though, over and above those of choosing such unplayable chamber music, O’Riley especially coming into his own in this sonata, which is really more of a duet between equals. His piano style seemed more at home with this kind of music than pure accompaniment, which is an art in itself, partly because he seemed more easy with the dynamic of two equals playing together, something sounding more like a trio or a contrapuntal quartet.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, coming out of both his long time love of Italian culture that I feel goes well beyond northern European sun worship, and his founding of the “neoclassical” style in the Diaghilev ballet Pulcinella, inspired by and borrowing from an early classical Pergolesi piece, as the informative and interesting program notes explain. The piece has a relatively loose, easy structure of brief contrasting sections, written like ballet music with dance-informed cadences, relatively short phrasing in the more intense, faster “numbers” and much rhythmic variety over the course of the piece. This is the strength of the sonata form, in its marriage of opposites, and in the vein of the famous Schoenberg quote that much music remains to be created in C major, much music remains to be be created in sonata form. Stravinsky in his own unique style pushes and pulls the musical form and those cadences to his own purpose so that “neoclassical” is a bit misleading; rather than something analogous to the style of architecture which brought to the world Monticello and the British Museum and all the rest, not to mention places on the map like Troy, NY, neoclassicism in music is less descriptive as a term in itself, only useful as a shorthand to refer to a certain historically-informed style of some 20th century music. Haimovitz’s interpretation of the sonata-suite was very appealing. The two musicians’ style together, their rapport a little bit brittle, less easy-sounding than some, but that of course is a valid way to play, like wool and rubber, generating very slight static electric shocks here and there, was interesting in so far as it did not need to rely on the intrinsic sonorous beauty of the instrument. Haimovitz’s playing here spoke in an individual voice expressive in itself. The almost nasal, gamba-like tone of the highs on Haimovitz’s Venetian early 18th century instrument by Matteo Gofriller was beautifully matched to this music, like neoclassicism, a marriage of modernism and an early classical rational beauty that is very self-posessed, a late baroque-early classical cello with steel strings is perhaps the ideal instrument for this period of Stravinsky’s.

Like the Rachmaninoff finale, the Prokofiev sonata also seemed to excite the audience particularly strongly. Another important 20th century ballet composer, Prokofiev is perhaps more tuneful than Stravinsky, maybe from political pressures, but then again Diaghilev’s financial pressures in the west were severe at times. Prokofiev did see a parallel between himself and Tchaikovsky in desiring to write three grand full length ballets, while the Stravinsky ballets are nearly all quintessential Diaghilev, 20th century, triple-billed, short pieces. Diaghilev always had trouble putting on the three-act classics in any case. Here Haimovitz tended to play it straight, allowing Prokofiev’s idea of beauty to stand on its own, but perhaps as music it was not quite as interesting as the Stravinsky which had had more zest, and interesting tasty bitter flavors. He relied more on the richness of the low range of his instrument, which didn’t have quite the eloquence and varied timbre it did in his Stravinsky Suite Italienne. But it will be all German cello sonatas at the next Tannery Pond Concert, with Sebastian Bäverstam and Yannick Rafalimanana.

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