One-man Slovak cello ensemble featuring voice and rhythm at NZSM

New Zealand School of Music: Jozef Lupták – improvisatory cellist

Bach: excerpts from Cello Suites nos 1 and 3
Improvisatory performances on Ernest Bloch’s Jewish Prayer, Threnos by John Tavener and O crux, meditation for solo cello by Vladimir Godár

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Kelburn campus

Friday 21 March, 7 pm

Cellist Jozef Lupták came to New Zealand primarily, I suppose, to play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra; I see he also gave concerts at Rangiora, Dunedin, Rotorua. He was also enticed to visit the New Zealand School of Music to give a masterclass on Thursday and a short recital on Friday 21 March.

His recital started and ended with excerpts from Bach’s cello suites: first, no 3 in C and last, no 1 in G. He played with eyes shut, seeming to be transported as he launched into the Prelude, the cross-string passages driven with a hypnotic energy, with a sort of intensity in which he seemed to seek distinctness in every passage, sometimes at some cost to unity of feeling. Then he jumped to the Sarabande (not the Courante, as the programme had it. Luptak did speak before playing, but I did not hear or missed hearing what he might have said about the movements), dealing with it in an almost painful, exploratory way that meant the stretching and compressing of phrases, quite losing any hint of the movement’s dance origin. But  that was replaced by a transcendental spirit that would have been complete if the light in the Adam Concert Room had been more dim (and there was no reason for it to be so well lit as the player had very little recourse to his score or the audience to the programme notes).

The third movement, consequently, was the pair of Bourrées, which are found only in suites 3 and 4. Here was the return to the real world, though Luptak’s playing introduced a kind of waywardness, again giving individuality to every phrase, which somehow dramatized the shift to the minor key in Bourrrée II. Finally, the Gigue: heavy, emphatic double stopping really caught the spirit of the peasant dance in its earthiness.

Then came his three improvisations. They consisted of the subject piece either at the start or embedded some way in, which was then subjected to the kind of variation treatment that neither Bach, Brahms or Rachmaninov might have recognized. Their only similarity to their predecessors, whether fantasies,  ariations, cadenzas or occasionally improvisations, came through spectacular bravura and showy ornamentation.

Being unfamiliar with any of the three pieces, I felt a bit ill-equipped to follow their treatment in these highly individual improvisatory explorations, as the tunes had not been sufficiently embedded in my head to allow much grasp of the way they were being transformed.

But that reference was to some extent supplied but the voicings with which Luptak accompanied his playing, consisting of a sort of humming of the tunes in question, with the mouth slightly open; simultaneously, the player added a vocal rhythmic accompaniment of clicks and sibilant sounds.

All three pieces had clear and intense religious relevance. Though I found closest kinship, musically, to the pieces by Bloch (a characteristic Jewish Prayer) and Tavener (the moving Threnos, deriving from the composer’s long obsession with the Greek Orthodox liturgy); the third piece was by a fellow Slovak musician, Vladimir Godár, O, crux (‘O Cross …’), obviously inspired by the Catholic Latin liturgy.  All evolved as pregnant, deeply felt inspirations.

The music was diatonic enough, but exhibited, at first, through a series of heavy bow strokes, a violence and anguish that was powerful; later that was set aside by a lighter passage in a dotted, dancing rhythm; the improvisation led off with his rhythmic bouncing the wood of his bow on the strings, that suddenly became more frenetic.

And Lupták allowed his last tongue clickings, in the Godar piece, to lead into the Prelude of Bach’s Suite No 1. Its playing seemed to have been deeply infected by the anguish of what had gone before; and there was little change of tone in the following Sarabande in which all its latent variety and expressiveness was exploited; but the final Gigue, with its gaiety, brought a feeling of peace and satisfaction.

Lupták played two encores: a short improvisation called Six Months and then the brief opening passage of the Bourrée which presumably was from Suite No 4 (not, as he announced, from Suite No 6 which as a pair of Gavottes in that position).

(I have not been able to check what I thought were changes in the Bach movements that I’ve noted above; if any audience member cares to comment, I’d be grateful).

This was an unorthodox recital, only and hour and ten minutes long, but put together with a single-minded ingenuity and imagination and played with high energy and intensity of feeling.