The astounding all-Russian cello sonata program of David Finckel and Wu Han on the Durham Chamber Arts series on January 10 set the performance-standard bar so high that I approached the Pinehurst Classical Concert Series' concert on January 12 with trepidation. As luck would have it, the program was mostly German with a bit of French and Polish music for spice despite cellist Alexandre Bouzlov being very Russian. A good crowd in Owens Auditorium on the Sandhills Community College campus heard a well-prepared menu that abounded in a rich variety of musical colors and flavors.
In 2001, when he was seventeen, Bouzlov won first prize in the Young Artists International Auditions and two special prizes: the Fergus Prize for Special Merit and the Usedom Music Festival Prize, for an engagement in Germany. As a fourteen-year old, he performed at Mstislav Rostropovich's 70th birthday concert. Currently, he is a student of Natalya Gutman at the Moscow Conservatory. His robust-sounding cello was made by contemporary French luthier Alan Carbonair and is provided to him by the Spivakov Foundation. His impressive accompanist was Noreen Cassidy-Polera, a Juilliard graduate who has specialized in cello-piano repertory. She has a fine mastery of styles and balanced carefully with Bouzlov; their ensemble was very tight. I suspect that her balance would have been fine without having the piano lid in its lowest setting.
Unlike many young musicians who sometimes rush things, Bouzlov displayed maturity beyond his years in his secure and unhurried bowing and phrasing of slow passages such as the opening of Beethoven's Sonata No. 4, in C, Op. 102. This made the ensuing fast passage all the more dramatic. His richly burnished tone, from the most delicate quiet passages through the most theatrical, projected well. Both artists gave full value to the composer's important moments of silence.
Bouzlov brought plenty of sweep to the opening of Brahms' Second Cello Sonata, in F, Op. 99. The composer exploits the whole range of the instrument; one of the highlights of the cellist's interpretation was the wide palette of colors heard in both his pizzicatos and tremolandos. The slow movement - heart-felt and held together seamlessly - was the outstanding feature of the cellist's interpretation.
Robert Schumann's Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op. 102, with their irregular rhythms, offbeat accents, and song-like melodies, made a witty appetizer for the second half of the concert.
Debussy's Sonata in D Minor received a performance that would be difficult to improve upon. Bouzlov's precise intonation and mastery of color made this a tonally iridescent jewel. The composer originally entitled the sonata "Pierrot fâché avec la lune" ("Pierrot angry with the moon"), and the duo brought out the somewhat fey quality the name suggests.
Bouzlov and Polera won the audience's unreserved enthusiasm with a virtuosic performance of Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C, Op. 3, composed for cello and piano in 1829-30. The pianist luxuriated in a surfeit of cascading arpeggios that backed the cellist's long singing line.
The encore - Variations for One String on a Theme by Paganini, generally played by violinists - was a showy display of technique.