Illuminating, even sublime perfection in solo recital by cellist Lev Sivkov

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Lev Sivkov – solo cello (who played Barber’s cello concerto with Orchestra Wellington on Saturday 3 August)

Khachaturian: Sonata-Fantasia (1974)
Piatti: Caprice No 5 in A flat
Bach: Suite No 2 in D minor for solo cello. BWV 1008
Dutilleux: Three Strophes on the name of Sacher (1976)

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 7 August, 12:15 pm

Sadly, it is rare that major soloists with our professional orchestras are taken in hand by enterprising entrepreneurs and offered recitals around the country. Lev Sivkov is clearly in the hands of an enterprising manager in New Zealand who is making excellent use of him.

Having heard him last Friday with Orchestra Wellington playing Barber’s cello concerto, I was delighted to be handed a flyer about this recital in St Andrew’s lunchtime concert series.  It’s a time to note that these concerts are both free for the audience (though most drop a ‘koha’ in the box) and without a fee for the performer; the vital contributions of church and Marjan Waartenberg also go unrewarded.

The programme was changed from that advertised, to take account of the need to retune the cello’s two lower strings by a semitone for the Dutilleux piece. No rearrangement could have affected the pleasure flowing from the four pieces, three of which were unknown to virtually everyone.

His playing of Barber’s cello concerto prepared me for the distinction of his playing here, which was extraordinary in every respect: intonation more than perfect, an expressiveness that succeeded in being utterly satisfying and tasteful; asked to rank his playing on a scale to 1 to 10, I would suggest 11.

The Barber was certainly a taxing work though strangely not quite a masterpiece. This was a far better opportunity to watch and listen up close to music that was again just short of being undisputed classics, apart from the two movements from a Bach suite.

Khachaturian is not thought of as a chamber music composer, but this Sonata-Fantasia from late in his life, aged 70, showed that perhaps there’s a lot of other orchestral, chamber and other music that we are being deprived of.

It had real character, with sequences of chords and individual notes that were not commonplace and on second hearing would very likely take root in the mind as interesting melodies; even without a second hearing, the piece was coherent and arresting and commanded the audience’s rapt attention.

A Piatti Caprice
Then a piece by a once familiar cello virtuoso and composer, whose simpler pieces could be tackled by an average student such as your reviewer. This Caprice was not to be underestimated; the words ‘musical substance’ came to mind, its shape and melodic sense were conspicuous, and there were decorative elements, feathery flourishes that were far from mere pyrotechnics, though they would challenge all but a highly accomplished player.

Bach Suite No 2
Sivkov then came to Bach’s second solo cello suite, playing the Prelude and Allemande. It was a wonderfully elegant and thoughtful performance, the Prelude never for a moment merely a tricky exercise, became an illuminating, naturally-breathed, musically absorbing movement. I’ve never been so conscious of the break in the middle that resumed in a spirit that had suddenly become ethereal and other-worldly. He played the Allemande as if it was being created on the spot, with easy spontaneity and delight; never a hint of a result of long and thoughtful practice.

The Dutilleux piece, which as a reckless Francophile I’d never heard though I have made myself familiar with most of his music, reveals his characteristically complex and elusive writing. It was one of the pieces that Rostropovich asked twelve composers to write in honour of the 70th birthday of Paul Sacher, the famous and deeply inspiring Swiss music patron, using the letters of his name as the theme: Eb, A, C, B, E, D. The most famous work commissioned by Sacher was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and Dutilleux used a quote from it in the Three Strophes.

It seemed to present a multitude of technical devices that could easily be mistaken merely for showy avant-gardish cleverness. Technically, it sounded impossible, with endless multi-stringed harmonics that created fairylike effects, left hand pizzicato, requiring supernatural dexterity, all delivered in such perfection that one could imagine the composer being astonished that he’d written something that could be handled with such sublime delicacy and understanding, sounding as even he might have hardly conceived it.

It attracted a quite large and noisily appreciative audience. This concert is likely to go down as one of the most memorable in St Andrew’s year-long series; in fact, in all the scores of concerts in Wellington this year.


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