Twenty-two seasons ago, Music for a Great Space was founded by Lucy and Henry Ingram to answer the dearth of chamber music in Greensboro and to fully exploit the acoustics of the sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church. Its important Fisk Opus 82 organ is used for regular organ recitals. The Ingrams used the best in local and guest talent to provide a wide variety of programs ranging from instrumental to vocal. Many have also involved educational outreach to children. A memorial fund underwrites one of the series concerts in honor of Henry Ingram’s memory.
The featured guest artist, cellist Julian Schwarz, has special ties to the Greensboro community dating from his participation as a teenager in the Eastern Music Festival where he was a concerto competition winner. Subsequent professional appearances there have included the Brahms’ Double Concerto. Judy and Keith Wright followed Schwarz’s career from his student days and had always wanted to support any professional appearance the cellist made on the MFGS series. This concert honored both Henry Ingram and the late Keith Wright.
Schwarz chose an enterprising program of works not apt to be heard in a month of Sundays. He proved to be an accomplished player, and provided casual background comments from the stage about his selections. His very able accompanist was David Aladashvili who played with the Steinway lid supported by its shortest stick. Between Schwarz’s powerful projection and the pianist’s careful economy of dynamics the cello was never drowned out.
The three “Bs,” Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, were masters of the variation form and Mozart was unsurpassed in his knack of creating unforgettable melodies. Schwarz’s first selection drew from both, Beethoven’s Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” WoO 46, is based on Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte. The aria is already a miniature set of variations to which Beethoven simplifies the melody, toys with across-the-bar syncopation, twists chromatic harmonization, adds humorous sforzato accents, and pretends to slip into a distant key.
Schwarz produced a full, rich sound from his cello and conveyed a spirit of spontaneity. His intonation was good and his phrasing was stylish. Aladashvili brought out Beethoven’s intensity while ably supporting his partner.
The Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is too seldom programmed. The four-movement work reflects the composer’s advances in writing counterpoint coupled with what Emanuel Ax, in the program note to Sony SK-53112 calls, Chopin’s “ever present genius of melodic and harmonic invention.” Schwarz speculated the scarcity of performances may reflect the difficulty of the keyboard part. Ax says its complexity “threatens to overwhelm the cello line” and distort the overall sonority. The first movement is wistful and reminds me of the piano concertos. The scherzo is by turns lilting and playful. The slow Largo has a wonderful prayerful quality while the finale is a rousing allegro. This was the very last work Chopin composed.
Schwarz and Aladashvili turned in an exciting but carefully balanced performance that avoided the pitfalls inherent in the score. The keyboard part was glowing and crystalline. Schwarz’s high notes were precise while his cello produced full, rich low notes for the heartfelt melancholy of the largo.
Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966) was not only a student of Pablo Casals but he was a noteworthy composer for the cello. In addition to a Cello Concerto (1926), chamber music, and numerous transcriptions, he composed Schwarz’s selection, Suite for Cello Solo (mid-1920s). It is in three dance movements, Preludio-Fantasia (a Zarabanda), Sardana, and Intermezzo e Danza Finale (a Jota). According to Wikipedia, the first movement quotes from Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello Solo, Op. 8 and the well-known flute solo from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Cassado’s recording of the Bach Solo Cello Suites is still in print. The cellist’s Suite marries aspects of Spanish folkdances with his Baroque model to which is added a plethora of technical challenges.
Schwarz had the “chops” to spare as he seemed to effortlessly toss off multiple stops, stratospheric high harmonics, or complicated changes in meter. Beauty of tone was just icing on the cake. An extensive recorded survey of Cassado’s works would be a good project for funding by an arts grant.
Excerpts and shorter selections made up the after-intermission program. Schwarz altered the printed program’s sequence by beginning with the fifth movement, “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” from the magnificent Quatour Pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) [not the 1908-22 of the printed program]. Composed in German Stalag VIII-A, the whole work combines Messiaen’s fascination with bird song and color with his deep Catholic spirituality and mysticism. Scored for cello and piano, the title of the movement translates as “Praise for the Eternity of Jesus.” The sparse keyboard chords support a hovering cello melody which seems to continue on into some divine and infinite distance. Schwarz and Aladashvili conjured Messiaen’s vision in sound superbly.
The background for Schwarz’s next selection, “Sonatensatz” (Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata), WoO 2 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was still familiar to me from preparing the review of Leila Josefowicz’s recent performance of the original version for violin and piano at Duke University. Early in Brahms’ career in 1853, his mentor Robert Schumann proposed to jointly compose a four-movement sonata for violin and piano to be presented to the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim. Schumann composed the second and fourth movements while his student Albert Dietrich composed the first movement and Brahms wrote the third movement. Joachim successfully guessed which composer created which movement. Brahms’s Scherzo was only released for publication by Joachim in 1908, ten years after the composer’s death. There’s none of the bitter-sweet or Autumnal quality of late Brahms in this piece which is stormy and passionate like the First Symphony or First Piano Concerto.
Schwarz blended beauty of tone with intensity in this version for cello and piano, most probably by Steven Isserlis. Aladashvili ably supported Schwarz.
The printed program ended with another transcription of a piece originally composed for violin and piano, Zigeurnerweisen by the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. The essential show piece is hard enough when played on the violin much less when transferred to the larger cello! Aladashvili was given plenty of scope to show off his chops in the virtuosic introduction and here-and-there where he conjured up the sound of a dulcimer-like cimbalom or zither common to gypsy bands. After entering with an appropriately lugubrious tempo, Schwarz handled all the artificial harmonics, the difficult runs, the double stops, the flying spiccatos, the ricochet bowings, and the left hand pizzicatos with aplomb.
The delightfully played encore was a waltz selection from Valse Nobles et Sentimentales by Maurice Ravel. We look forward to hearing Schwarz this summer as a faculty member of the Eastern Music Festival professional orchestra.