Fire, flamenco and folksong ‘cello style, from Ramón Jaffé

Ramón Jaffé (‘cello)
Catherine McKay (piano)

CHOPIN – Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante
BEETHOVEN – Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in C Major Op.102 No.1
JAFFÉ – flamenco improvisation
BRAGATO – Graziela y Buenos Aires
DVORAK – Piano Trio No.4 in E Minor “Dumky” (with Carolyn van Leuven – violin)

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Tuesday 1st March 2016

The title given to this concert by the artists rolled off the tongue colourfully and evocatively enough – however, I confess that I found myself involuntarily drawn into slightly circumspect mode over the word “fire”, having over the years grown somewhat weary of being assailed by regular barrages of hype from major arts organization by way of advertising their oncoming productions.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, as what followed during the actual concert was precisely what the title suggested. In fact, “fire” in its threatening, smoldering form aptly characterized the playing of ‘cellist Ramón Jaffé throughout a good deal of the proceedings, especially when he tackled those pieces related directly to a Latin American tradition of music-making, such as flamenco.

What the programme in fact described as “a flamenco ‘cello treat” was just that, when Jaffé played for us a piece which he had written in honour of flamenco guitarist, Pedro Bacán, with whom he had closely worked, and who had since died in a tragic accident in 1997. Jaffé described how he had to “begin again” as a ‘cellist when taking up the flamenco style, putting aside his classical training and learning new techniques and responses to the music, and reaching a point where he could play and improvise as if he were a folk musician.

I wrote down what I remembered Jaffé called his piece (the name wasn’t written down in the programme), which was something like Canta de Passion (in translation, Passion Sings, or Song of Passion). It was a detail which didn’t seem important at the time, so arresting were the sounds the player was drawing from his instrument. His bow danced suggestively upon the strings, the rhythms allowing pizzicati from both bowing and “fretting” hands to generate an ever-burgeoning excitement  which broke off into a kind of a kind of recitative and then developed into something almost hymnal, free and sonorous.

Rhythmic impulses reasserted themselves in the form of percussive gesturing, Jaffé knocking and slapping the ‘cello’s body and tapping his feet to the music’s pulsating, using the dancing bow on the strings once again and working things up to an intensity which carried through to the piece’s end. In both song- and dance-like sequences the music generated a good deal of impassioned feeling.

Jaffé then joined forces with pianist Catherine Mckay in a work, Graziela y Buenos Aires, by one José Bragato, an Italian-born Argentinian composer who celebrated his hundredth birthday in October last year. ‘Cellists who play tangos more often choose the works of Astor Piazolla, (most often a piece called  Le Grande Tango) but Jaffé told me after the concert that he preferred to play Bragato’s work.

Loaded with sultriness and dark-toned suggestiveness, the music began with the ‘cello following the piano’s mood-jazz lower-register evocations, occasionally giving the trajectories a “lilt” to enliven the languid atmospheres. Solos from each instrument alternated with racy, interlocked Latin-American dance rhythms, driving the music along with ear-catching timbres and hues, as when the ‘cellist played over the bridge of his instrument amid droll piano glissandi.

The piece’s concluding sequence memorably took in a long and sinuous ‘cello melody, tenderly and delicately partnered by the piano, the pair of instruments breath-holding and trance-like in their murmurings towards the music’s end.

Before either of these exotic pieces were performed, ‘cellist and pianist had given us two more conventionally “classical” works, beginning with an early work by Chopin, Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante. A lilting Andante-like beginning featured plenty of give-and-take between the instruments, though with the piano more typically forthright and decorative than the cello’s more song-like lines, after which both players launched into the Polonaise section with great gusto.

In places I was reminded of the piano writing in Chopin’s concertos, giving the player a real work-out in places, leaving the cellist to impress us with aristocratic poise and gorgeous tones. Catherine McKay balanced the virtuoso element beautifully with the poetic moments, the give-and-take between both musicians giving a strong and positive impression as to the music’s worth. Beethoven, of course, received similar advocacy in his Op.102 No.1 C Major Sonata which followed, the music’s improvisatory manner in places drawing forth finely-drawn tones from both players.

Particularly delightful were the “cat-and-mouse” sequences between the instruments in the work’s second movement, the cello’s “open fifths” and the piano’s teasing gestures subsumed into the playful allegro vivace with terrific élan, leading to the throwaway payoff.

Concluding the concert was Dvorak’s well-known “Dumky” Trio, for which Ramon Jaffé and Catherine McKay were joined by violinist Carolyn van Leuven. From what I’d heard ‘cellist and pianist do earlier in the concert, I anticipated that they would bring out this music’s expressive qualities to a point of deep satisfaction – and I wasn’t disappointed. From the tragic, lamenting opening, through to the inhibited gaiety and energy of the quicker sections of the movement, the players seemed fully engaged with the sounds and their purposes, thus conveying to us plenty of that “Bohemian lament” character for which the composer’s work was and is justly renowned.

Of course, ‘cellist and pianist were already “on fire” with the conflagrations of the concert’s first half, so that it took a little while for violinist van Leuven to find her richest voice to contribute to the textures, though her rhythmic sense instantly “kicked in” with the ensemble. The poco adagio second movement drew us in from the beginning, the violinist responding to the cellist’s eloquence with atmospheric “squeeze-box” tones, so very nostalgic and moving!  Even more so was the andante moderato which followed, the music having a “heartbroken” quality, a great longing which subsequent episodes of energy and dogged strength didn’t entirely banish.

Such moments came thick and fast during the finale, with its volatile shifts between tragedy, introspection and gaiety, the motto theme tossed almost recklessly between the instruments and spontaneously inflected as to express a bewildering variety of moods, with no holds barred – that last-named quality a defining characteristic of the concert’s overall music-making. Each of the musicians played a part in serving up this feast of creative re-enactment for our delight – we did our best to mirror their efforts with appropriately enthusiastic appreciation.

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