Exhilarating and musicianly recital by senior NZSM students

St. Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series

Duo Cecilia – Lucy Gijsbers (cello), Andrew Atkins (piano)

Camille Saint-Saëns: Sonata for cello and piano in C minor (1st movement)
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996): Sonata for cello and piano No. 2, Op. 68 (movements 1 and 2)
Claude Debussy:  L’Isle Joyeuse for solo piano
Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango for cello and piano

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 April, 12:15 pm

Duo Cecilia plunged into the opening Saint-Saëns sonata of this concert with a riveting fortissimo
that immediately had everyone sitting up in their seats. This impassioned Latin fire blazed through the initial section with unrelenting fervour, then was beautifully contrasted by the following calmer piano episode, where the melodic writing for the lower cello register saw Lucy Gijsbers’ rich, sweet tone sing through with wonderful artistry. The two musicians clearly shared a common vision for
the movmeent and its many moods, and mostly moved as one. But in the most energetic fortissimo sections, even Gijsbers’ impressive power could not speak through the volume that Atkins produced from a concert grand piano open on full stick. This was a balance problem that continued to recur from time to time throughout the programme, particularly in fortissimo passages.

A careful preliminary sound check in the St. Andrew’s space could have taken care of this, and should not have been overlooked. These younger musicians will have to perform in all manner of spaces throughout their careers, and it is an important issue to come to grips with right from the start.

Weinberg was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin. From 1939 he lived in the Soviet Union and Russia and lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

Andrew Atkins explained that the composer was interned in a concentration camp until he was released after Stalin’s death, and that this was the first New Zealand performance of Sonata no.2. The movements played, while not specifically programmatic, were full of the moods and idioms that one associates with a life of loss, repression and persecution.  The soulful, poetic opening, with its unsettled tonalities, moved into more anguished dissonance as the movement progressed, but eventually resolved into fading resignation ……….

The second movement opened with a beautifully shaped cello melody voicing the pathetic despair of a soul without hope, yet one still able somehow to discern a faint glimmer of light on the horizon. The following repetitive pizzicato phrase sounded like a finger tapping helplessly on the door to freedom, but it was taken up by the more passionate and demanding voice of the dissonant piano that eventually passed it back to resolve in a few final fading pizzicati. The writing was extraordinarily evocative throughout, and was given a highly moving and sensitive interpretation by Duo Cecilia. I hope they will in due course be able to perform the work as a whole, and perhaps also give voice to more of this composer’s work.

Andrew Atkins explained that the next piece came from one of the happiest periods in Debussy’s life, and that L’Isle Joyeuse was written on the honeymoon of his second marriage. It opens with scurrying handfuls of notes that sweep across the keyboard like glittering reflections over rippling waters. There is a lovely melodic line traced through all the shimmering texture, but unfortunately Atkins opted for a tempo that simply swallowed this up, playing at a speed well ahead of the French or French Canadian recordings I’ve heard. But the contrasting gentle interludes fared better and conveyed a deep contentment. The vigorous, animated conclusion rounded out a reading that was, overall, very well executed.

The Piazzolla work, though named Le Grand Tango, has to my ear only a rather cerebral connection with the familiar idioms of the dance floor. The opening bustle of notes from both instruments does lead into a more melodic piano section, and more recognisable tango dance rhythms are discernible through the handfuls of pianist’s notes. But then a gentler more melodic central section captures an almost soulful mood of intimate courtship which was beautifully expressed by the duo. Finally a sudden shift takes us into sharply angular dance rhythms and dissonant tonalities which they attacked with suitable vigour, racing headlong into the frankly noisy closing section where rampant lust is clearly let loose!

It was an exhilarating finish to a most accomplished and musicianly recital from two very competent players. It is a pity it was so poorly attended, though the sudden descent of Wellington’s long Indian Summer into miserable drizzle and low cloud could well have had a lot to do with that.


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