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It's been more than seven years since I last heard Jon Nakamatsu play at Tyler-Tallman Hall – and exactly six years since I reviewed a concert there on the Davidson College campus. Once again joined by Charlotte Symphony principal cellist Alan Black, Nakamatsu, the 1997 Van Cliburn International Competition winner, seemed to be surrounded by more electronics this time. A quartet of mics was suspended over the lip of the stage, and a thick cord snaked its way from a polished Hamburg Steinway to an upstage wall outlet. Rachel Stewart, an emissary from WDAV-FM, confirmed that the concert would be recorded for a future broadcast, adding weight to her pleas that we silence our cellphones and unwrap our cough drops before the performance began. The program had a couple of steep precipices to climb, the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, so it was appropriate that the opening pieces – two Impromptus by Schubert – were more than mere baubles before we arrived at these big-boned mammoths.
Once Black emerged to introduce the headliner, the program acquired a nice warmth and loosening of formality. Folded into his introduction of Nakamatsu and their past collaborations – at Davidson College and WDAV – Black went ahead and gave us his intro to the Rachmaninoff sonata, which we wouldn't be hearing until after intermission. Nakamatsu then appeared and, without any preliminary remarks of his own, launched into the Schubert Impromptus – the G-flat, No. 3, followed the E-flat, No. 2 – barely separated by a pause. The treble of the No. 3 is simply a thing of beauty, spread over a lush and somewhat dark undertow in the left hand, a remarkably chameleonic piece if you survey recordings of the masters.
Pianists can give the simple melody a tinge of Chopin (Maria João Pires) or Beethoven (Alfred Brendel). At the time of his performance, I probably would have put Nakamatsu in the Beethoven camp, which seemed to be an appropriate keynote for the Brahms to follow. By flipping Schubert's order and playing the more virtuosic No. 2 after No. 3, Nakamatsu not only primed himself for the formidable technical difficulties the Brahms would present, but he also offered us an effective contrast in moods. Nakamatsu quickened the tempo, sounding effortlessly nimble and Chopinesque when he dwelled in the treble-heavy opening section, then grew darker and more Beethoven-like in the B section of the piece. With its A-B-A-B structure, Nakamatsu was able to build to a finish that was consonant with the opening of the Brahms.
Nakamatsu's spoken intro to the sonata stressed the stern intentionality of Brahms when he designated the C major composition as his Opus No. 1 and his own personal view that the piece's densities and difficulties do not come naturally to hand for pianists. When he sat down to the keyboard, however, Nakamatsu had no difficulties at all, giving us a magisterial rendition that cohered far more powerfully than his own recorded performance at the Cliburn Competition in 1997. The power and lucidity of what Nakamatsu played live on the Hamburg Steinway, in the resounding Allegro that opens the sonata, more than rivalled the Sviatoslav Richter recording that I have treasured for decades and justified the pianist's expressed enthusiasm for returning to the Tyler-Tallman. There was a more somber sound to the ensuing Andante, which sounded relatively regretful in 1997, and a less rigid, more playful feel to the Scherzo, which now almost waltzed at times without surrendering its explosive volatility. Reaching the Finale, Nakamatsu again evidenced considerable maturation and rethinking. The clarity, separation, and engagement that Nakamatsu sustained between the feverish treble and bass writing enabled him to build the sweep and excitement of the piece. He seemed to relish the brinksmanship of keeping these two lines coherent at a daredevil pace.
We actually had a foretaste of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata when Nakamatsu and Black last played together at Tyler-Tallman Hall in 2012, when they gave us the Andante movement as their encore. That brief sampling brought forth Black's most soulful sounds on that night, and unlike their earlier collaboration on the Beethoven Cello Sonata No. 3, demonstrated that Black could assert and achieve full partnership with the cellist. Black described this Cello Sonata as akin to Rachmaninoff's famed piano concertos, with the cello standing in for a full orchestra – a positive sign, since it seemed like he was readying himself for a challenge. In both the Lento and allegro sections of the opening movement, it was clear that Black had picked up the gauntlet he had thrown down to himself. While I remained unconvinced of Black's mini-concerto description, there was unmistakable parity between him and Nakamatsu.
Nor was that because the pianist reined himself in. If he didn't quite unleash the knuckle-busting power we had heard in the Brahms sonata, Nakamatsu bloomed lyrically in the Rachmaninoff, capturing the composer's distinctive Romantic flavor and making a legitimate claim though his performance that the keyboard rather than the cello was replacing a full orchestra. After the section earmarked by Black's pizzicato, they entered an intense vortex and brought the opening movement to a tumultuous, romantically thrilling climax that rocked the hall. In the ensuing Allegro scherzando, Nakamatsu was delightfully crisp with a slightly spooky bass line, obviously having fun, yet ceding dominion to Black in the slowdowns, where the cellist played compellingly. Black once again showed his mastery in the Andante, but it was Nakamatsu who brought us more of Rachmaninoff's essence, always brightening the silver thread of melody gleaming amid the clustered notes.
After the lively dialogue of the first three movements, the composer achieves fresh power in the final Allegro mosso by unleashing both of his instruments on the same theme, foretelling the soaring climax when they combine one last time at a frantic pace. Before then, Black unveiled an anthemic theme that Nakamatsu delighted in adorning with filigree before stirring up fresh fireworks. The fireworks followed sooner after each successive onset of the anthem, the first repeat elegiac and the second almost like a fading farewell before the thrilling romp that ended it all. Any fears that the finale would be anticlimactic in the wake of the opening movement's spirited climax were soundly dispelled, adding to the satisfaction that filled the hall. The WDAV rebroadcast will be well worth tracking down.