Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the San Francisco debut of the young Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. This was the second of the three concerts in the 2017–2018 Young Masters Series, the annual reminder that awareness of the coming generation is always just as important as the enjoyment of those who have firmly established their careers. Hakhnazaryan was accompanied by pianist Noreen Polera, returning to SFP for the third time.
The program was divided between large-scale compositions and a diversity of shorter works. The major work on the program was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 cello sonata in F major, the second of the two he composed. Brahms completed his first cello sonata, Opus 38 in E minor, in 1865, around the time he was beginning work on A German Requiem (Opus 45), which became his first major public success. Indeed, he had trouble getting Opus 38 published and even spoke dismissively about it.
Opus 99 was written about two decades later. It presents a composer with a far more positive attitude, confident to write a duo in which the partners are very much on equal terms. The result is a first-rate match of richly expressive phrases for the cello that resound through floods of pianistic gestures that never force the cello off the stage. Both Hakhnazaryan and Polera clearly understood this relationship, supremely confident that they were up to its high-wire challenges. The result could not have been more satisfying, making it clear that the judges for the fourteenth International Tchaikovsky competition knew what they were doing in awarding the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal to Hakhnazaryan in 2011.
The Brahms sonata was preceded by the work of one of Brahms’ strongest influences, Robert Schumann. His Opus 70 was a coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements originally written for horn and piano. Schumann subsequently specified that the solo part could be taken by cello or violin; but one can easily detect the “horn call” passages in the Allegro movement. Hakhnazaryan took the idioms that characterized both of the movements at face value, never trying to imitate a horn but reflecting that instrument’s capacity for not only vigorous energy but also extended lyrical passage by rethinking those qualities through his cello.
The intermission was followed by a diverse assortment of music on a shorter durational scale. Hakhnazaryan began with a collection of five relatively brief pieces, each based on a folk theme, by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze. Hakhnazaryan observed that there were many parallels in the folk traditions of Georgia and Armenia. Indeed, listening to these engaging miniatures, one could easily hear echoes of Aram Khachaturian (along with a bit of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s take on an “Arab” dance, which he composed for the ballet The Nutcracker). There were even a few suggestions of klezmer, making me think that the ethnomusicological expertise of Veretski Pass might have been informative.
The geographical stance then migrated west to the Iberian peninsula. “Asturias,” which was originally published as the first movement of Isaac Albéniz’ Opus 232 suite Chants d’Espagne, is one of that composer’s best known pieces. It is also one of the most successful evocations of guitar technique to come from a piano keyboard, so it should be no surprise that the music is now played frequently by guitarists. So last night we had a cello and piano evoking the spirit of a piano evoking the spirit of a guitar, prepared by an arranger not credited in the program book. To his credit Hakhnazaryan seems to have a clear sense of when the music was conducive to the cello, and he played up those moments for all they were worth.
from IMSLP (public domain)
He then complemented this “chain of evocations” with an evocation of Albéniz himself by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. Shchedrin was no stranger to Spanish rhetoric, having transmogrified Georges Bizet’s score for Carmen into a bizarre concoction for strings and percussion, which served as music for a ballet based on the opera choreographed by Alberto Alonzo for Shchedrin’s wife, prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya. Shchedrin’s “Imitating Albeniz” was written for solo piano in 1959 and subsequently arranged for cello and piano by Walter Despalj. Hakhnazaryan and Polera presented this version with all of the wit it merited.
Hakhnazaryan then turned to the “violin encore” repertoire with his own arrangement of the “Meditation” interlude from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Listening to his performance, one could easily forget that Massenet had intended the music for a solo violin. Hakhnazaryan then returned to Iberia, concluding his program with “Requiebros” (compliments) by the Catalonian composer (and student of Pablo Casals) Gaspar Cassadó, a thoroughly engaging wrap-up of his survey of miniaturist techniques.
As might be expected, however, he and Polera returned with two encores. The first went back to appropriating virtuoso violin music. This time he turned to the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini playing his “a Preghiera” sonata, an introduction and variations on “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera Mosè in Egitto. What made this a particularly virtuoso turn was that Paganini required the entire piece to be played on the highest string of the instrument (E on the violin but a fifth lower on the cello). He then concluded with the one selection by an Armenian composer, a nocturne by Edward Bagdasarian (not to be confused with Ross Bagdasarian or any of his chipmunks). Again this was music written for violin which translated over to cello with little difficulty.