Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26

Clein

               Natalie Clein

To open its 2019 season, Musica Viva presented this cello-piano duet, two young artists (yes, they’re in their forties but they all look young to me) of high achievement.  Their careers are studded with prizes, academic positions, recital and concert appearances with significant organizations and well-known conductors and colleagues, now coming into the climacteric of their lives with this Australian tour.   A respectably sized audience came along to the MRC for this program which boasted two masterpieces from the cello/piano repertoire and a fresh composition by an Australian writer.

The evening began with Kodaly’s Sonatina, a brief one-movement work that I’d not heard before.   In fact, the only piece for this string instrument that I did know was one which occupies such a large position in the cello’s limited storehouse that it can hardly be ignored: the Solo Sonata of 1915: a monumental masterwork that first introduced me to the brilliant craft of Liwei Qin.   This brief duo has reminiscences of the greater work – and of the composer’s partner in transcribing Hungarian folk music from the source: Bartok.   Both instruments share a welter of rhapsodic gestures and modal inflexions that go back to Liszt in serious mode.

The reading set something of a pattern for the program’s progress.  Apekisheva powered through the keyboard’s ardent 12-bar introduction before setting up the quintuplet waves that support the string’s long-arched D minor melody.   Not that Kodaly divides the labour in doctrinaire fashion; the cello gets its powerful declamations, if nothing as striking as the piano’s fortissimo outburst at bar 158.   In this well-integrated score, idiomatic, even flattering, for both instruments, Clein  and Apekisheva showed an agreeable balance, despite the piano being open on the long stick and this cellist not one to belt out her sound.

Natalie Williams’ freshly composed The Dreaming Land, created for these artists and this tour, is in three movements and seems to be concerned with Australia and its pre-European civilization.   After one experience of its content, however, I’m not sure.  ‘Dreaming’ tends to set off shivers of local recognition in most of us but the composer’s actual vocabulary and technical armoury is employed in such a way as to suggest any landscape.   Not that you expect intentional Jindyworobakisms to leap out, but these three movements/scenes have more universal associations than expected.

Williams speaks a tonal tongue in which the natural bent is towards resolution; at several points, leading notes yearn towards the tonic and usually fold into it.   Yes, there are passages of dissonance but you aren’t left with much ambiguity about where the composer has led you.   Movement One, Voices of the Ancients, is dominated by rising patterns from the piano, which underpins the string’s role as narrator dominating its supporting companion.   The voices are essentially lyrical in the time-honoured Western tradition and they also tend to follow an upward-leading and continuously prevalent optimism.

The Chanting Walker . . . follows without much change in procedure even if the timbre-world is more dour.   For all the eloquent melodic arches from the string player, well-written to exhibit Clein’s disciplined vibrato, the pilgrimage scenario failed to move me, chiefly because the work’s progress is too self-assured.   You’d expect the title’s trailing off to suggest doubts, even indeterminacy, but this walker has all the answers and leaves nothing to the imagination, reaching a full close – which I, for one, find atypical of this country’s native metaphysics.

Finally, Ethereal Furies is an emotionally moderate moto perpetuo with some intriguing rhythmic hockets but eventually settles into regular patterns.  These Eumenides are well-dressed and, while active, would not discombobulate any Orestes, now or then.  The atmosphere is of Mendelssohn through a well-ordered restlessness, but dressed in light 21st Century garb.  We can thank Williams for her musical journey and the prospects that it offered but the score lacked bite, even though Clein and Apekisheva outlined it with enthusiasm and apparent precision.

Beethoven’s final Cello Sonata in D, second of the Op. 192 brace, enjoyed a very welcome airing.   The performers’ account of the initial Allegro gave us a complete, consistent canvas; no small feat when you remember the composer’s penchant for abrupt changes in most compositional parameters, including the unsettling leaps that typify the sonata’s opening matter.   You looked in vain for overt declamation or jolts of power in the Rostropovich/Richter style of delivery; here the emphasis fell on finding a continuous seam and following it through.

The central Adagio also impressed for its composure and deftly conserved harmonic ambiguity in the outer sections, which embraced a splendid D Major centre with eminently fluent passage work and tic-free treatment of the demi-semiquaver Alberti bass figures in the keyboard and the fragmented commentary offered by the cello, marred only by some strained high Ds.  The gentlest of transitions moved us into the finale fugal Allegro where both artists quite sensibly put their trust in the composer.  The texture gets piano-heavy at two definite points but Apekisheva persisted with her dynamic, leaving Clein to emerge from the ferment that comes about from near bar 84 to bar 89 and reconvenes near bar 126.

To end, the duo played the Rachmaninov G minor Sonata which gave the lion’s share of labour to Apekisheva.   Clein’s generous bowing action made some form of compensation for the composer’s over-hefty keyboard writing but she is not a bullish performer, urging out her line at the expense of accuracy.   Not that the inbuilt imbalance proved too distracting except in the concluding Allegro mosso where the composer was manifestly unfair to the cellist, studding the piano part with brilliant bursts of virtuosity and scintillating textures.

It’s true that the string player doesn’t fare much better in the vital Allegro scherzando.  Clein can’t put on a gruff voice for any money and she was hard-pressed to mirror her partner’s volatile scampering downward two-note skips.  Of course, there are compensations in the central A flat Major trio but even here Rachmaninov supplies the pianist with a lush accompanying textural web towards the transition back to taws.  To her credit, Apekisheva maintained the correct role, her mastery evident in that we were aware of her content – just not overpowered by it.

An admirable interpretation, then, but not one that dripped with tension.  True to her lights, Clein gave not a hint of a scrape, her bowing address impeccable across the program.   You were able to rest secure in the hands of a highly competent musician with a fine command of phrasing.   Yet, for the two major works, those hefty sonatas, her elegance of utterance necessarily was overshadowed by her colleague who also – as far as I could hear – made precious few errors across a taxing night’s work.