Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances launched its 2016–2017 Virtuosi Series with San Francisco debut performances by Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta and her accompanist, Italian pianist Alessio Bax. According to her profile in the program book, Gabetta has a heavy schedule of performances in Europe, which means that she does not spend much time in the United States. If last night was representative, seeking out the rare opportunities to listen to her in this country will be well worth the effort.
She prepared a program whose second half was devoted entirely to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, the major work being his Opus 119 sonata for cello and piano in C major. Composed in 1949, this is the work of a composer beginning to feel the onset of age (even if he was not yet 60) encountering a very young cellist named Mstislav Rostropovich, who was 22 years old at the time. The relationship between the two men was a good one, which was probably a great relief for Prokofiev, whose return to the Soviet Union in 1936 had been plagued by one struggle with Soviet authorities after another. Indeed, the relationship was so good that Prokofiev dedicated two subsequent pieces to Rostropovich, the Opus 125 “symphony-concerto” in E minor and the Opus 132 concertino.
The title on the score page simply says “Sonata.” Prokofiev himself was a virtuoso pianist; but, unlike Ludwig van Beethoven, he did not choose to call this a sonata for piano and cello, nor did he place the cello before the piano, so to speak (although the IMSLP page for the score gives this ordering as an alternative title). (For the record, Rostropovich’s accompanist at the world premiere of Opus 119 was Sviatoslav Richter.) The music is definitely an encounter between “virtuoso equals;” and that was the encounter that last night’s audience in Herbst was privileged enough to experience.
Many of Prokofiev’s “abstract” compositions tend to unfold as a series of episodes, suggesting that the composer was not interested in the more traditional structural forms of preceding centuries. One result is that his individual movements are marked by frequent tempo changes, almost as if each of these marks off a different “domain of activity.” In Opus 119 only the middle movement falls back on the ternary form of a scherzo, while the structures of the outer movements are far more discursive in nature. This confronts the performers with the challenge of deciding just what they want that discourse to say and how to render “coherent utterances,” so to speak. Gabetta and Bax thus impressed by endowing coherence to Prokofiev’s unfolding episodes, even if the coherence amounted to a narrative declaimed in some unfamiliar alien tongue.
Fortunately, the intervening scherzo is not only easier to take at face value but also delightfully playful. Indeed, it has that same devil-may-care quality that ballet lovers know so well in the scene in which Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio are about to crash the Capulet ball. The cello part involves some elaborately intricate pizzicato work, which Gabetta gave not only a sound technical execution but also a clear sense that she knew what a punch line is. Indeed, her flair for the dramatic was previewed, so to speak, with the performance of the Adagio in the second act of Prokofiev’s score for the Cinderella ballet. (Prokofiev’s Opus 97 was a collection of ten excerpts from that score written for solo piano, which he later rearranged for cello and piano.) In the ballet this is the first section of the pas de deux that Cinderella dances with the Prince shortly after her arrival at the ball, and Gabetta and Bax had no trouble presenting this excerpt as a pas de deux for musicians.
The first half of the program was devoted to two of the leading composers (and colleagues) of the nineteenth century, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The program began with Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three Fantasy Pieces (Fantasiestücke). Schumann composed these for clarinet and piano but indicated that the clarinet could be replaced by a viola or a cello. This suggests that Schumann did not care very much about sonority. While the clarinet can certainly produce a smoothly polished sound, its upper harmonics tend to sharpen the edges of that sound, while the bowing of a cello tends to soften those edges.
As a result Gabetta and Bax could present Opus 73 as music distinctively different from its original form. Indeed, in many of the moments in which the cello line embeds itself within the activities of both right and left hands at the keyboard, the duo could summon up an effectively blended sonority whose qualities could not be matched by any change in instrumentation. The only problem arose with Gabetta’s overly vigorous bowing in the last (Rasch und mit Feuer) of the three pieces. It almost sounded as if she were applying tremolo repetitions to each of the notes in the opening gesture, but the only result was that her melodic line was almost completely obscured.
Brahms was represented by his Opus 38 sonata in E minor, the first of the two sonatas he composed for “pianoforte and violoncello” (the ordering in the 1866 Simrock edition). Like Beethoven, Brahms was not shy in what he wrote for the piano part; but, for the most part, Gabetta and Bax gave a satisfying account of this music as a meeting of equals. Nevertheless, there was something dutiful about the execution, almost as if it was expected that Brahms would be part of the program. As a result any sense of intense expression never rose to the occasion as it did during the Prokofiev performances.
That intensity was followed by a quieter encore, Auguste Franchomme’s arrangement for cello and piano of Frédéric Chopin’s C-sharp minor piano étude, the seventh in his Opus 25 collection. Chopin wrote this with considerable melodic activity in the left hand, and Franchomme had no trouble translating this into a virtuosic solo cello line. The result was as expressive as the Prokofiev performance had been; but the medium was definitely “something completely different.”