‘Cellissimo’: Upper Hutt recital by NZSM cello and piano lecturers

Classical Expressions at Upper Hutt

‘Cellissimo’ – Inbal Megiddo (cello) and Jian Liu (piano)

Boccherini: Sonata in A major; Beethoven: Handel Variations (‘See the conquering hero comes’); Cello Sonata No 4 in C, Op 102; Schubert: Introduction, Theme and Variations, Op 82 No 2, arranged by Piatigorsky; Rossini: Concert Rhapsody on The Barber of Seville, arranged by Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco.

Genesis Energy Theatre, Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt

Monday 3 September, 7.30pm

This was the fourth in the fine series of recitals that are jointly promoted by the arts centre and the Upper Hutt Music Society. I always enjoy a trip to Upper Hutt, though I have yet to get myself there by train, which is so convenient at the Upper Hutt end, with an arrival at 7.20pm and departure at 10pm.  The arts centre itself is an attractive space, usually with an art exhibition to visit before or during the interval and a coffee bar open at those times too.

It was an interesting programme, though by the end, I felt that Ms Megiddo had chosen a bit too much showy music at the expense of a couple of more lyrical works for the cello. (By the way, her name is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ and stress on the second syllable: clues to pronunciation should be routinely clarified in every reference to names whenever there is the slightest chance of uncertainty, as there is, even, in many ordinary English names).

It began with one of the large number of cello pieces composed by the 18th century’s most famous cellist, Luigi Boccherini; I count about 23 cello sonatas in the Gérard catalogue (and he wrote over a hundred string quintets that call for two cellos). It opened with an Adagio, gentle in tone with a long ornate melody that nevertheless offered plenty of scope for display of his own virtuosity, typical of writing by a composer for himself; though it was not without minor bowing flaws. It continued in the Allegro movement with much decorated material, in a vigorous rhythmic style.

Turning attention to the piano, Jian Liu’s playing was in immaculate accord with Megiddo’s playing, supporting it admirably.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No 4 followed. If I found the performance a little lacking in tonal richness, I’m inclined to put it down to her instrument, which has plenty of projection but which makes it hard to obtain a warm, lyrical line. As a result the work sounded a bit severe, its most notable quality being to bring out musical structure, rather than the flesh that gives music its essential life.

Beethoven’s variations on the aria from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, ‘See the conquering hero comes’ responded better to Megiddo’s playing; here there seemed better scope for a dramatic approach which had the side effect of injecting more colour and spirit. The sharp differences between each of the variations lend the piece a good deal of its interest, with excellent opportunities to mark the cellist’s technical skills, and the piano’s contribution, with its own striking ornaments, was again, most rewarding.

The second half gained through its singular variety of styles. Megiddo captured the bare beauty of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel in a very arresting, keenly focused performance, with remarkable pianissimos and long-held, deeply intoned notes as the piano handled the more detailed elements.

Megiddo’s note for a piece written for the cellist, marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s emergence, succinctly described the character of contemporary Israeli concert music, and it was an excellent introduction to her playing of Eretz by Hanna Levy. There were indeed echoes of the various cultural strands that contribute to the complex fabric of Jewish peoples in Israel, and they made for an interesting, often attractive, symphony of disparate sound. This too found Megiddo in a very comfortable space.

The next two pieces struck a curious note for someone always intrigued by unexpected juxtapositions. Schubert and Rossini were very close contemporaries; the prodigal flowering of Rossini’s music, aged about 18, that almost at once gained world-wide popularity occasionally stood in the way of the 5-years-younger Viennese composer’s hopes of success, especially in opera. Another odd circumstance is the fact that Schubert ended his composing life through dying, poor and not widely celebrated, just a few months before Rossini ended his opera career by retiring in Paris in great fame and wealth.

But here was a set of variations composed for piano four-hands by Schubert, not, I should have thought, primarily a show-piece for the players. (It’s in the Deutsch catalogue as: Variations on an Original Theme in B-flat major, Op. posth. 82, No. 2, D 968 A). It sounded fairly unexceptional as a conventional set of variations. However, I am not in a position to know what Schubert’s original was like, nor what changes cellist Piatigorsky made in the course of his arrangement, but what we heard had plenty of material for a skilled cellist to make excellent use of.

The Rossini variations were also an arrangement by another hand, this time by Italian composer, best known for his guitar compositions, Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco (translating as ‘Newcastle-German’, if you’re interested). It didn’t start terribly well on the cello, though I didn’t think it mattered as it did not impress me as an especially worthy piece of music.

Rather better was their brief encore, one piece from the Suite popular española by Manuel de Falla which seems to be an arrangement, probably for violin, of six of his Siete canciones populares españolas (properly translated as Seven Spanish popular songs, and not ‘Popular Spanish Songs’).

A somewhat uneven programme, somewhat unevenly played on the cello though very fine at its best, and with sufficient musicality and musical substance to make the journey worthwhile.