Megiddo and Thomson present ‘cello-and-piano treasures at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

MANUEL DE FALLA – Suite Populaire Espagnole (1914)
SALINA FISHER (b. 1993) – Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
NADIA BOULANGER – Trois Pieces (1911-14)
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Two pieces from “The Limpid Stream”
CLARA WIECK-SCHUMANN – Drei Romanzen Op. 22
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Sonata in F, Op.99, for ‘cello and piano

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 9th May, 2021

‘Cellist Robert Ibell was originally scheduled to perform in this concert, but was prevented from doing so by injury,  his place being taken by Inbal Megiddo. I’m not certain whether the programme was the original performer’s choice, or whether Megiddo and pianist Rachel Thomson made changes – there was a rearrangement of the programme’s printed order, which Megiddo announced after she and Thomson had performed their opening item, an absolutely magical rendition of Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole. A pity that St.Andrew’s
has always been a difficult place for speakers without microphones to be heard, so that neither I nor my companions were able to clearly hear Megiddo’s announcement regarding  the programme’s order, so that we all had to wait for the interval to be assured by others of what we had heard. It all fell into place quickly enough once we knew!

The performers began the concert in the most captivating and compelling manner possible with Manuel de Falla’s collection of Spanish Songs, originally published as a set of seven for soprano and piano but performed here in an arrangement for ‘cello and piano (one of many for diverse forces) featuring six of the songs. I’m not entirely sure whether the performers followed the order as printed in the programme – for instance, it seemed to me as though the song Polo printed here as No. 4, was actually performed last, instead of Jota, its harsh, defiant and dismissive tones better fitting the description of the former in the programme notes.  The second song, too, surely must have been Asturiana, rather than Nana, the former’s opening melodic line so reminiscent of Granados’s piano solo The Lover and the Nightingale. What was more important than all of these detailings was the performers’ identification with the overall spirit of the music, along with each piece’s sharply-contrasted differentiation of focus – one couldn’t help but “feel” in Jota the growing animal excitement of the crescendi giving way to florid vocal-like expression in the cello’s recitatives; and, later, the volatile, barely-contained sexual jealousy in Polo, the same energised red-blooded thirst for revenge as in The Miller’s Dance from the same composer’s ballet El sombrero de tres picos.

At the beginning of the concert’s second item, Salina Fisher’s Mono no aware (物の哀れ) I found myself intently scribbling descriptive notes regarding the sounds I was hearing, hoping I would be able to later identify the music – though Fisher’s work was actually listed next on the programme, I wasn’t sure what we were hearing was hers or Nadia Boulanger’s work, though there didn’t seem to be much evidence of Debussy’s or Faure‘s influence in what was being sounded! The piece’s beautiful “awakening” with air-borne piano notes and sighing ‘cello lines wreathing themselves all about my sensibilities made a compelling start, as did a cosmos-like scenario that slowly developed from both nebulous clusters and deeply-wrought rumblings of piano notes to a playing-out in parallel with the cello’s epic realisation of the movements of celestial bodies, the   punctuated with passages of recitative-like eloquence – a kind of cosmic dance or ritual enactment led to a sequence of great interactive intensity, one which allowed itself to play out in contemplation of processes that suggested a kind of “certainty of impermanence “ – Fisher in her notes concerning the work wrote of the symbolic importance of “the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms” in contemplations of the kinds these sounds seemed to suggest. (All of these thoughts crystallised, somewhat to my relief, when Salina Fisher herself appeared on the stage to acknowledge the applause at the end of the piece – whew!)

Our whereabouts in the programme were gradually giving themselves away, despite a few moments of uncertainty in identifying the next work. The opening music here had a kind of “stoic bleakness” one could possibly ascribe to Shostakovich (but somewhat removed from Clara Schumann’s “Andante moderato”), the ‘cello’s contined expression of the melodic line’s loveliness poignant and heartrending, before both instruments briefly gathered up their intensities “into one ball” for a few Debussian seconds (!) and returning to the serenity of the opening, with lovely, deeply-sounded notes at the end! As if the ghosts of Shostakovich (and Schumann) hadn’t already been laid to rest, the following “amble through the woods” was far removed from a waltz, its canonic interplay more like Cesar Franck in its lyrical intensity – but though the ebullient finale was suddenly Shostakovich-like at the outset in its motoric octave figurations the 5/4 rhythms were hardly waltz-like, enabling my “internal jury” to take the plunge and confidently “find” for Nadia Boulanger, and be damned to the consequences! But still, what lovely music!

In the item that followed, the “Adagio” marking for the first of two movements transcribed from Shostakovich’s ballet score “The Limpid Stream” suggested at the outset something rather less assertive than what we heard in the music, the strident, assertive piano chords momentarily unnerving our growing confidence in “picking our way” through the items – fortunately Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello brought the music to order, taking up a languid, long-breathed song, aided and abetted by the piano throughout  whatever mood the music chose, in this case an almost Rachmaninov-like climax, with impressively-generated oceanic waves of sound emanating from Rachel Thomson’s sterling fingers, the ‘cello returning us persuasively to the gentler of the piece’s reminiscences. After this the Waltz was very “waltz-like, jolly and uncomplicated” with heart-warming flourishes of innocent enjoyment from all concerned.

During the interval our “listening conclave” had confirmed the Wieck/Schumann-Boulanger exchange, and felt much better as a result! So, we were able to settle down and enjoy the programme’s second half, beginning, of course, with the Drei Romanzen Op. 22 of Clara Wieck-Schumann, a work which was obviously a transcription of the original violin-and-piano work , which Clara had dedicated to the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, and performed it with him to considerable acclaim. Sadly, these were among the last pieces that Clara wrote, as after her husband Robert’s death in 1856 she concentrated almost exclusively on her performing career by way of helping to promote her late husband’s music.

One understands when encountering this music how various people at the time would have expressed regret that Clara no longer composed – she obviously possessed wonderful lyrical feeling, and the ability to convey such a quality in her writing for both piano and violin. I thought the flattened note in the work’s main theme was a masterly stroke – a kind of “talisman” which gives the music such magic and distinction. The sombre mood of the second movement was relieved by a more lively major-key sequence, with occasional bursts of playfulness in the piano/’cello exchanges, before the minor-key mood crept back into the music, unable, however to suppress a touch of major-key impishness with the final pizzicato chord . The last movement, Leidenschaftlich schnell, seemed to express a yearning for happier, more youthful times, the theme flowing passionately on the ‘cello over constantly-moving arpeggiated figures, the spirit of Robert, one feels, being unashamedly evoked, especially in the main theme’s ardently-rising “Widmung”-like figure.

And so to Brahms, and his Second ‘Cello Sonata – I confess to having a certain ambivalence regarding parts of the opening movement of this work, where it always seems to me that there’s insufficient “room” for all the tones and figurations of the writing clamouring for attention – one feels nothing but sympathy for the hapless ‘cellist who fell foul of the composer’s waspish tongue while performing the work with him after she complained she couldn’t hear herself over the plethora of piano notes! Megiddo and Thomson certainly threw themselves into the “no-holds-barred” fray throughout, making the most of the lighter, more spaced-out moments (some particularly atmospheric playing during the “throbbing engines” sequences, repeated notes on the ‘cello “hung about” with chords and echoes from the piano – lovely!).

The two middle movements brought more light and shade into the music‘s world, the Adagio affettuoso with heartfelt singing tones from the ‘cellist, the textures limpid and breathing, building up to assertive exchanges between the cello’s pizzicato notes and the pianist’s rock-solid chords, followed by a return to the opening’s poetic singing tones and deft colourings from both players. By contrast, the Scherzo’s demonic energies straightaway put our sensibilities on the move, restless, agitated figurations from the piano, against a rollicking tune from the ‘cello, the “galloping horse” trajectories most excitingly, and in places even spookily, played, in contrast to which the movement’s trio section here flowed in a most heart-easing manner!

As for the finale, Megiddo’s and Thomson’s playing brought out for me the music’s similarities to the last movement of the same composer’s Second Piano Concerto, genial and ebullient at the start, varied of mood during its course and resolving all issues with bluff good humour. An appreciative audience readily showed its pleasure at the music’s conclusion, a feeling which continued after the applause had finished with comments of satisfaction from all sides reaching my ears – a most gratifying conclusion to a concert!

PS – Inbal Megiddo and Rachel Thomson are performing this programme as part of the Hutt Valley Chamber Music 2021 Concert Series  at 7:30pm on Thursday 20th May, in St.Mark’s Church on Woburn Road, Lower Hutt.




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