Salzmann and Irons at Waikanae

Edith Salzmann (‘cello) and Diedre Irons (piano)

JS BACH – Suite for solo ‘cello No.2 in D Minor BWV 1008
BEETHOVEN – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A Major Op.69
DEBUSSY – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in D Minor (1915)
FRANCK – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A Major (1886)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae
Sunday 24th May 2009

Composer/pianist Gao Ping was to have played in this concert, but had to cancel, so his place was instead taken by Diedre Irons, necessitating a programme change in the original plan – but considering the calibre of the artists involved in the rearrangement, no-one could possibly have felt hard done by. The programme was a ‘cello-fancier’s dream, beginning with one of those iconic works for the solo instrument, a suite by JS Bach from the set of six, regarded by many as the greatest music ever written for the ‘cello, and followed by sonatas by Beethoven, Debussy and Franck. ‘Cellist Edith Salzmann, born in Germany, has lived in New Zealand since 2001, working at the Canterbury University School of Music and playing in the Canterbury Trio, while maintaining a busy and varied international schedule of performance and teaching. Her colleague, Diedre Irons, well-known to Wellington audiences, has also had a long association with Canterbury, teaching at the University for a number of years until taking up the position as Senior Lecturer in Piano at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington in 2004.

Beginning with the Suite for solo ‘cello by Bach (No.2 in D Minor BWV 1008), the programme took us straight to the heart of the instrument’s expressive and technical geist. Edith Salzmann’s playing I took some time to fully engage with, partly the result of an acoustic in the Waikanae Hall which allowed her tones very little warmth and resonance. As the work progressed my ear “caught” more and more of what she was actually doing with the music, though her approach throughout the suite remained on the “intimate”scale, as though she was performing for a circle of friends, and the rest of us were eavesdroppers. She didn’t seem to want to ever “command” the music, preferring a lighter, more quixotic manner, with suggestions here and there of wider, more deeper realms, her ignoring of most of the repeats contributing to the evanescent nature of it all. The work’s Prelude was delivered in a free and rhapsodic way, with some of the notes in places brushed so lightly as to be practically inaudible – an interesting and somewhat circumspect discourse. She caught the character of the different dance movements well, expressing their speech/movement flexibility with a light touch, digging in where appropriate (as with the Sarabande), and differentiating nicely between the two Minuets. Her final “Gigue” set the dance leaping over the nicely-voiced “drone” throughout, but still, a somewhat “held-back” manner left me with the feeling that she would rather have been playing this music to a small circle of friends.

Beethoven – and Diedre Irons – brought the ‘cellist out of her shell somewhat for the next work,  the A Major “Cello Sonata Op.69. A lovely opening ‘cello solo begins this work, beautifully played here, and answered beguilingly, setting the scene for a fascinating interplay to follow throughout an extensive first movement. A patch of nebulous intonation at the top of the ‘cellist’s first exposed ascent was quickly forgotten amid the hurly-burly of the rest of the movement’s exchanges, contrasting the flying skin and hair in places with a wonderfully hushed reprise of the main theme’s “ghost” before the recapitulation proper. The scherzo, one of Beethoven’s wonderfully angular creations, was relished by both players, the ‘cello’s rather quixotic singing line and the piano’s dancing augmentations providing plenty of forward momentum. A deeply-felt  but short-lived adagio cantabile led into an energetic finale, delivered with plenty of spirit, and building up strongly to an almost orchestral climax with terrific surges of tone from both players.

The concert’s second half presented two works from the French repertory. Debussy’s ‘Cello Sonata is a late work, the first of six instrumental sonatas that he planned to write “for diverse instruments” – alas that only three were completed before his death in 1918. I thought this a strongly characterised performance of the sonata, bringing out the music’s almost superabundance of invention as episode followed episode. The opening’s forthright exchanges between the instruments melts into a lullaby-like section, whose awakening in turn leads to a big-boned, epic passage redolent of the same composer’s “The Engulfed Cathedral”, here relished by both players. The sounds then take on a veiled, sombre quality, emphasised by the ‘cellist’s slight “under-the-note” manner continuing in this vein to the movement’s end, with Edith Salzmann’s ‘cello giving us a lovely high harmonic chord. The second movement began with pizzicato exchanges between the instruments, the extraordinary voicings used by the composer uncannily blending the sounds of the two instruments, though interspersed by volatile goings-on between ‘cello and piano of an entirely different character, Salzmann and Irons really sparking off one another. The finale enters without a break, a cheerful folk-like melody giving the movement in places an almost Dvorakian feel. I felt Salzmann and Irons judged the balance in this movement between propulsion and languour to near-perfection, in a way that heightened the excitement of the final run-up to the work’s piano-and-pizz. conclusion.

Finally, we heard a well-known work in a less familiar guise, Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata arranged for ‘cello and piano (the work of one Jules Delsart, done with the composer’s approval). Perhaps the ‘cello has to work a bit harder to maintain an equal voice with the piano, when compared with the brighter, more insistent violin, but the deeper voice has an attractive “withdrawn” quality at times, especially suiting the first movement’s introspection. Such was the warmth and richness of Diedre Irons’ piano-playing I found it difficult to concentrate elsewhere, so fascinated and absorbed did I become in places by what she was doing. The scherzo’s “whisper to a roar” beginning for piano, and the ‘cello’s colouring the melodic line were brought off with great gusto, the players’ energies and focusings capturing the “schwung” of it all, despite occasional mis-hits by both, which somehow added to the excitement. As telling in this movement were the rapt recitative exchanges between the instruments, the contrasts underpinning the music’s passionate outpourings. Difficult for the ‘cello is the scherzo’s coda, as the instrument can’t really “shine” against the piano’s onrushing figurations as the violin can do, and intonation sounded strained here in the attempt. With the slow movement returns the rapt ambience of the scherzo’s central section, the dialogues between ‘cello and piano capturing that “moment in time” quality so powerfully. Salzmann and Irons beautifully varied the intensifications, facilitating a real ebb and flow of emotion. After all of these somewhat confessional utterances, the finale comes as unalloyed joy; and so it was here, with the music’s contourings again beautifully served, and the work as a whole brought to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.

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