An introductory feast – Inbal Megiddo and Jian Liu

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Jian Liu (piano)

BEETHOVEN – 12 Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”
MENDELSSOHN – Song Without Words Op.109
LAURENCE SHERR – Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano Mir zaynen dol (“We are here”)
BRAHMS – Sonata in D Major “Regenlied” Op.78
DE FALLA – Suite Populaire Espagnole (arr.Maréchal)
ROSSINI / CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO – Largo ad Factotum from “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace,

Sunday 1st May, 2016

I didn’t hear all of the introductory talk given before the concert by Jewish-American composer Laurence Sherr regarding his ‘Cello Sonata Mir zaynen dol, but what I heard was sufficient to convey the context and motivational force of the music, composed in 2014 and here given its Australasian premiere. It certainly added a unique dimension to this, the first of the Wellington Chamber Music Concert Series for 2016.

‘Cellist Inbal Megiddo and pianist Jian Liu, both in sparkling form, played a first-half programme which led most gently up to Sherr’s work, to the threshold of a world dominated by persecution and suffering, with only the music of Rachmaninov casting any shades or strains of angst over the proceedings.

The rest was grace, lyricism, wit and high spirits, tempered by some mid-course agitations in Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words piece, and the aforementioned sorrowful aspect of the Rachmaninov Vocalise, given here in an anonymous arrangement.

First was Beethoven’s homage to Mozart’s “Magic Flute” opera in the form of a set of variations on the opening of the aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, sung by the simple birdcatcher, Papageno. Here were poised, beautifully “sprung” phrasings from the piano and beguiling voicings from the ‘cello, the conversation between the instruments an eavesdropper’s delight. Each musician relished the many guises of the contrapuntal lines of the later variations, from energetic (No. 8) through ritualistic (No.9) rapt (No.10) and almost sacramental (No.11) to the ebullient dance-like finale, where rapid fingerwork and occasional modulatory swerves from both soloists added to the excitement and pleasure, as did a Waldstein-like flourish near the end from the piano.

Mendelssohn’s posthumously-published Song Without Words presented a lilting water-borne aspect supporting the song of a lover serenading his sweetheart in between each indolent oar-stroke. Perhaps the wake of a passing paddle steamer momentarily ruffled the undulating surfaces of the water-course and rocked the boat, both mid-course, and towards the piece’s end – but peace and decorum was restored at the conclusion, characterized by a beautiful ascending ‘cello figure.

Megiddo and Liu drove intensely into the opening measures of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, keeping their phrases tightly-focused and allowing little relaxation – but then, their quieter, slightly less “clenched” way with the opening’s reiterated phrases allowed us some much-needed breathing-space with which to prepare for the oncoming waves of songful emotion. Though the pair did vary these intensities throughout the work, I felt more than usually “drained” by the music at the end of this performance, and wasn’t sure that I didn’t feel cheated, deprived of my usual Rachmaninovian nostalgia-trip and being given something tougher and more dry-eyed instead, even if some would have thought this was most probably to the music’s advantage.

Perhaps it was part of a subconscious “preparation” by the musicians to deal adequately with the demands of Laurence Sherr’s work, the Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano Mir zaynen dol. (“We are here”). Dedicated to the composer’s father, the work’s subtitle underlines its raison d’etre – to pay homage to those who survived the dreadful rigours of the Holocaust, and who have kept alive and passed on their traditions and memories to younger people, as a real end enduring record of “identity, resistance and survival”.

The composer came on to the platform with the musicians to help demonstrate an aspect of the Sonata’s final movement, which was the intertwining of the main themes of two of the “source songs” for the work as a whole, one a Marching Song, the other a Youth Hymn, thus bringing together old and young. This reflected the use of two other songs, one in each of the previous movements,  which symbolized the determination of individuals in ghettos, concentration camps and refugee groups to survive and tell their tales, as well as those of the lost voices, to keep alive their memory.

March rhythms and prayerful melodies by turns thus dominated the work, the first movement taking its cue from a song Yid, du partizaner (“Jew, you Partisan”) set to a Russian melody, piano and ‘cello each bringing their own stirring energies and singing tones to the rallying-calls, while a more exotic, middle-eastern-sounding lyrical section added to the flavour of the music.

By contrast, the second movement drew from both cantor-like lyrical lines, using Kel (El) mole rachamim, a Jewish prayer for the deceased, and later from a lullaby Wiegala, written by a Therensianstadt concentration camp prisoner. Both were presented with rapt focus by Jian Liu and Inbal Megiddo – at the outset long-breathed piano chords and “strummed harp” sonorities  provided the basis for the ‘cello’s prayerful melodic outpourings, leading to more dynamic interactions between the instruments. Then, in the “lullaby” section the mood became less declamatory and more personal, a beautiful cantabile ‘cello melody expressing an individual voice’s faith in and hope for a better life.

The interval gave us the space we needed to reflect upon these evocations before the concert’s second half called us back to an equally varied, if rather less emotionally fraught presentation, one that seemed extremely generous in terms of playing-time. With music by Brahms, de Falla and a remarkable piece of tongue-in-cheek homage from a twentieth-century composer to one of the nineteenth-century “greats”, the performers certainly drew from diverse sources to give us a rich and rollicking experience.

Brahms led the way, with Megiddo and Liu opting for the composer’s own arrangement for ‘cello of his Op.78 Violin Sonata, rather than one of the “proper” sonatas for the instrument. Though there were places, particularly the double-stopped opening of the second movement, during which I thought the ‘cello sounded a shade too guttural for the material, I thought the arrangement was well worth a hearing, even if my allegiance to the “original” remained unshaken. Despite the occasional high-lying melodic strand which sounded a shade uncomfortable, ‘cellist Megiddo brought her considerable expressive qualities to the music with great effect, bringing off moments like the distant “hunting call” sequences which close the Adagio movement to heart-stopping perfection.

Elsewhere, Megiddo and Liu worked “hand in glove” with the Sonata’s many delights, giving us a whole-hearted and deeply-felt impression of connection with the music, such as the agitations of the finale’s opening and the nostalgic references to the slow movement’s material along the way to the work’s autumnal, almost regretful conclusion. After these deeply-considered outpourings, what a change to be taken to a sun-drenched, more sharply-etched world of volatile emotion and exotic colorings, in the form of Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole, the composer’s own suite for violin and piano re-arranged by French ‘cellist Maurice Maréchal. With plenty of “snap” and colour  from Jian Liu’s piano, and pulsating feeling from Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello, these pictures were made to drench our sensibilities with flavours of far-away places and times devised of magic.

I confess I didn’t really see the Castelnuovo-Tedesco arrangement of Rossini’s Largo ad Factotum from his “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” coming – which probably added to its outrageous impact! Originally conceived for violinist Jasha Heifetz as an out-and-out showpiece, and devised by him in collaboration with his friend Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the work was also arranged for ‘cello and piano by the famed virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky –  it didn’t say so in the programme, but it’s possibly the one that was used by Megiddo and Liu here, though a somewhat tart comment was made regarding a ‘cello version which was “stripped of many of the virtuosic elements”. Whomever it was who “reclaimed” these aspects of the work certainly did a good job – here was brilliance, energy, gaiety, wit, charm and coquetry, rolled into an irresistible package. Dare one say Rossini would have loved it? Whatever the case, he certainly would have admired the sheer élan of Megiddo’s and Liu’s playing, as did we in the audience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *