Sunday evening with Moky Gibson-Lane – a ‘cello and piano recital

Mok-hyun Gibson-Lane (‘cello)

with Catherine McKay (piano)

JS BACH – Suite No.1 in G Major, for Solo ‘Cello / GYORGY LIGETI – Suite for Solo ‘Cello

LUIGI BOCCHERINI – Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in C Major

MAX BRUCH – Kol Nidrei Op.47 / DAVID POPPER – Elfentanz (Dance of the Elves) Op.39

Central Baptist Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 29th August 2010

Moky Gibson-Lane, visiting home in New Zealand from her various commitments as a performer in Europe, gave a delightful recital in Wellington’s Central Baptist Church, one which stimulated as much audience pleasure as a similar concert she gave on a home visit a year previously. She’s currently playing with the Berlin Staatskapelle, frequently conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and is a foundation member of the Stabrawa Ensemble, led by the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert-master, Daniel Stabrawa. She makes frequent Arts Channel television appearances in Germany, and has recently taken part, with Barenboim, in the Berlin premiere of Mosaic, a new work by Elliot Carter. The prospect, therefore, of hearing a musician with such credentials was too good an opportunity to miss; and, happily, as with last year’s recital, the young ‘cellist amply demonstrated with her playing why she’s such a sought-after musician in one of the world’s musical capitals.

Her recital was half-solo, half ‘cello-and-piano partnership, beginning with two major solo works, one a standard classic, and the other a contemporary masterpiece. Just what it is about JS Bach’s music that enables one to listen to countless performances of it without tiring I’m not quite sure (an exploration beyond the scope of a recital review), but the perennial freshness of the notes invariably seems to re-kindle from various musicians the same sense of re-awakening, of re-discovery, one which Mok-Hyun conveyed in her performance of the G Major Solo ‘Cello Suite from first note to last. From the expressive sonority of the Prelude, through the Allemande’s stately ornate decorations (very baroque-defining!), and the wonderfully spontaneous mixture of freedom and constraint with which she propelled the lively angularities of the Courante,  the ‘cellist proceeded to make the work her own. Her Sarabande had beautifully-focused dignity, contrasting beautifully with the energies of the two Minuets, the first cheerful and forthright, the second wistful and circumspect; while her “lightness-of-being” touch with the concluding Gigue brought out all of the music’s life-affirming buoyancy.

I’d never heard the Ligeti Solo ‘Cello Suite before, and was prepared for something a lot more acerbic and uncompromising than what was presented. The work itself had an interesting, and somewhat fraught genesis, being originally inspired by Ligeti’s unrequited passion for a female ‘cellist and fellow-student at the Budapest Music Academy in the late 1940s. Ligeti was then asked, a few years later, by an older, well-known female ‘cellist, Vera Dénes, for a piece she could play. The composer expanded his previous one-movement work into a two-movement Suite; but with Hungary under Soviet control in the 1950s, the piece had to be submitted to the all-powerful government-controlled Composers’ Union for acceptance. Interestingly, the committee allowed Vera Dénes to record the work (for a planned broadcast which never took place), but refused its performance in public, on the grounds that its second movement was “too modern”. It wasn’t until 1979 that the piece was performed again. Ligeti called the first movement a “dialogue”, intending (no doubt with his youthful student amour in mind) a man and a woman conversing. He remarked also that this music was “heavily influenced” by the works of Zoltan Kodaly. A sense of something tender and heartfelt awakening was conveyed by the soft strummings of the opening, alternating with measures of full-throated melody, the strummed notes “bent” to give a heightened emotional effect. An impassioned middle section alternated between low and high lines, and brought out powerful playing from Mok-Hyun, the “Hungarian” melody then giving way to further soft pizzicato chords that ended the movement.

Ligeti aimed for contrast in the virtuoso second movement, modelling the title Capriccio on Paganini’s well-known Caprices for solo violin. The “Presto con slancio” directive for the performer means “‘very quick, with impetus”, and produced here an extremely exciting performance, running figures, trenchant attack, and tortured, agitated lines – a wonderful volatiity, almost an expiation of the heart-on-sleeve feeing evinced in the first movement. The exuberant final bars brought out an enthusiastic audience response to some great playing.

Moky Gibson-Lane was joined by pianist Catherine McKay for the second half, beginning with a Sonata by Boccherini which sounded like Haydn at the beginning, the music having plenty of muscularity and sprightliness. It was mostly ‘cello with dutiful piano accompaniment in this movement, really, with the development bringing out a more colouristic and in places even sombre mood, though nothing too tragic or heart-rending. The slow movement brought out the ‘cellist’s beautiful cantabile, rich and low in places and decorated occasionally with melismatic impulses; while the finale began as a good-natured jog-trot, but with demands on the soloist involving spectacular high finger-board work – not always DEAD in tune, but impressively virtuosic, nevertheless.  Rather more musical substance was provided by Max Bruch’s lovely, lyrical “Kol Nidrei”, the opening exchanges between piano and ‘cello long-breathed and full of feeling. Here, the rhapsodic melodies became big-hearted, committed statements, but with both ‘cellist and pianist preserving a ritualistic, almost ecclesiastical feeling about the exchanges, before relaxing into the rapt, hymn-like romantic dialogues of the work’s final section. Mok-Hyun celestially floated the last few measures of her line, the final ascent perhaps not ideally pure of tone, but nevertheless, together with Catherine McKay’s angelic support, a beautiful supplication.

We sinners needed bringing down to earth again after experiencing such stratospheric evocations; and the final item did just that – Czech composer David Popper’s sprightly, and in some places somewhat manic “Elfentanze” (Dance of the Elves) was a kind of  Bohemian version of “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, featuring plenty of rapid figurations from both ‘cellist and pianist, and some hair-raising, right-off-the-fingerboard bedazzlements from the ‘cellist at the end, which, to use the classic phrase, brought the house down. At a supper straight afterwards most people were happily able to more fully extend those gestures of appreciation that we readily and enthusiastically showed both musicians at the end of the concert.

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