KUNG FU CELLIST – Y-SQUARED
Australian Digital Concert Hall
February 22, 2023 at 6 pm
Yelian He, Yasmin Rowe
This cello/piano duo has been going strong since 2008 under the appellation Y-Squared. In a surprise announcement at the Primrose Potter Salon between Beethoven and Schumann works, He announced that, after 15 years, he and Rowe are taking their collaboration to another level and are getting married. This was a rather understated occasion; nobody flew into manufactured ecstasy; nobody whooped or hollered in the traditional Love Island acknowledgement of such information; the partners smiled at the applause but kept their composures – and almost immediately got on with the program. I can’t tell you how much I admired this restraint which delighted after years and years of manufactured emotional exhibitions in the poorest Hollywood tradition, now exaggerated to ludicrousness on reality television.
Still, such control seemed to be a continuation or reinforcement of the couple’s artistic output. They opened their evening with Beethoven’s Twelve Variations on the theme ‘Ein Madchen oder Weibchen’, Papageno’s Act 2 aria in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As with much in the rest of the program, this performance proved to be refined and elegant although, to be fair, He had little of gravity to do with most of the virtuosic running left to the piano; well, this is only to be expected, given Beethoven’s prowess which was in full swing at the probable time of composition – 1796. From the outset, this interpretation impressed for its sprightliness, evident in the theme’s announcement, and in the bounce with which Rowe infused her solo Variation 1’s demi-semiquavers.
He relished the opportunity to urge out an accurate, carefully wound Variation 2, while Rowe’s left hand gave us a faultless, highly active account of Variation 3. A clever division of labour on Beethoven’s part followed, then another piano-dominated 16 bars’ worth. Variation 7 again gave He little to do, the sole point of interest Rowe’s hiatus-point trills, carried off of a fine evenness. Ditto Variation 8, although the cello was rarely silent but confined to bass support while the keyboard generally worked on two treble staves. I enjoyed the slurred syncopation of Variation 9 from both musicians, chiefly because they made sense of the section’s rhythm while giving full weight to the bar-lines’ presence. As for the two minore blocks, Rowe handled the first one’s opening 8 bars with fine sensitivity and a lightly applied rubato, while He produced a mellifluous bass lyric in Variation 11, the pianist maintaining a present but non-insistent treble tinkling. With the change of time signature to 3/4 for Variation 12, a more even spread of responsibility proved welcome, with a deft and clean account of the work’s last 10 bars that concluded the work with placid softness.
After their engagement news, the duo launched into Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke and again you were confronted with a seamless interpretation of welcome maturity. He produced a finely burnished timbre for the opening Zart, his line balanced and carefully woven, avoiding any suggestions of fitful temperament or tantrums; in firm balance, Rowe was an excellent partner for the controlled restlessness of her triplet patterns, almost continuous up to the last nine bars – both executants working in fine synchronicity of attack and emotional congruence. Similarly, in the following Lebhaft, the performance showed admirable fluency in treating the same metrical contrast across the first part, up to the central repeated segment although a rare articulation error from He disrupted the first note of this central section’s second part (in the repeat, I think).
Once again, Rowe demonstrated a sterling consciousness of appropriate dynamic levels in the final Rasch, the piano a reinforcement of the rapid cello upward arpeggios and a background to the movement’s second-phrase lyric. This trait is notable in a Schumann chamber music pianist where many players seem to think they have right of way because of the writing’s solidity; Rowe looks for elegance rather than loquacity; for example in the middle segment where the tonality changes to A minor (if anything) and the cello sings a relieving, quiet melody over more semi-urgent triplets.
My only query came with an introduced pause 11 bars into the Coda when an abridgement of the upward-leaping arpeggio pattern shifts into a flattened-out version of the beginning’s answering strophe. It just seemed an odd refinement to admit when the direction Schneller has just been introduced for a gripping rush towards the ebullient, can’t-come-quick-enough conclusion.
We then enjoyed some highly appropriate Salon music in Elgar’s Salut d’amour which I don’t think I’ve heard live since my mother gave up the violin. A fine melody seems to be its main attraction; certainly there’s not much for the pianist to do, except for maintaining the andantino pace. And He produced a caressing line, achieved without over-stretching his vibrato and keeping our attention fixed on his quietly insistent phrasing. It made for an amiable interlude, a blast from our Victorian/Edwardian past, probably best reserved for an encore – like the Frank Bridge Serenade that eventually fulfilled that function.
But the last offering in the duo’s printed program was Poulenc’s Cello Sonata which was constructed well before the composer’s four woodwind scores in the same genre. Again, I can’t recall a previous live performance that I’ve attended. Maybe I’ve been lucky because this four-movement construct falls into tedium in its outer Allegro and Presto movements. Yet again, the distinctive feature of this interpretation was its fluent facility; all the cello’s technical ducks and drakes, all the piano’s dissonances seemed ironed out with few harmonic frissons available to spice up a busy environment. Something odd happened at the A flat trills around Number 10 in the Heugel 1953 edition; I can’t be specific but I think it came from the cello line – going back to find the place proved fruitless but I believe some unexpected if slight irregularity sprang up.
Both parties gave us a fetchingly voluptuous passage beginning at Number 18 where the composer insists that his interpreters must not slow down to take relish in a sudden purple passage after all that Tempo di marcia insistence. At some point, I began thinking that Rowe was using her sustaining pedal a good deal; but the score pretty well instructed her to produce plenty of washes. Still, the movement is garrulous right up to this point; dedicatee Fournier might have called for a dash of brevity, apart from advising the composer on technical problems and potentialities. Happily, the following F sharp Major Cavatine displayed many passages of smooth sailing, beginning with the sans presser melody emerging in the cello at Number 1, even if a momentary blip came with He’s assault on the top G at Number 4, the production coming across as uncertain on what is probably the highest note in the cello part across these pages. Against that, place the impressively controlled sweep of colour with the reapplication of the mute at the Excessivement calme marking 13 bars from the movement’s chaste conclusion.
Rowe showed herself in light touch across the Ballabile, even with those full chords and octaves subsumed in the general aura of balletic bounding. Once again, you had to be impressed by the unshakeable congruence of these players in the outer sections where the instruments double each other with no room for hesitation. On top of that, He and Rowe convinced you of the good humour that runs through these pages where the percussive and intimate leggiero walk hand in hand. A full-bodied account of the finale’s 10-bar Largo introduction preceded an abrupt shift to rhythmic busyness at the arrival of the main body’s Presto subito; the players burbled along efficiently, although a C sharp minor chord at Number 11 struggled to make its desired effect. But there’s little defence against the movement’s central content between Numbers 13 and 18 where the action relaxes and the underpinning impetus disappears. It’s hard to describe how welcome were the returned triplets and how depressing the reversion to Gymnopedies country at Number 20 before the rounding-off stately five-bar Largo,
Poulenc’s product is a hard one to like, even when faced with a performance as expert as this one was. At the end, you know you’ve been through a substantial experience, one that gives its performers much room to demonstrate their skills. But, at the same time, you retain very little in terms of instrumental interplay, well-shaped melodies, rhythmic acuity, piquant harmonic layering. You can see and hear that the universally applied ternary format has been employed well enough, but the centre cannot hold your interest in a least two of the movements.
We all wish the newly-affianced our best wishes in their relationship which is clearly an artistic success already. They have shown themselves willing in their work, particularly in facing this evening’s French challenge; I’m anticipating calm seas and a prosperous voyage as they move on to more agreable Francophone peaks: Debussy, Ravel, Honegger, Saint-Saens, Faure – even the Franck Violin Sonata was approved for cello transcription by the (Belgian-born) composer. They’re definitely a duo worth following; in this instance, presenting an hour-long recital with remarkably few technical flaws and a wealth of interpretative insight.