There can be few more civilized ways to spend a Monday lunchtime than at a concert at the delightful Wigmore Hall, where one can escape the bustle of Oxford Street for an hour of quality chamber music. Today’s performers, the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili and Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, did not disappoint, in a programme featuring music from the core of the piano and cello repertoire: sonatas by Beethoven and Rachmaninov.
Beethoven’s two Cello Sonatas, Op. 102 date from the beginning of his “late” period, and sit alongside the pastoral Violin Sonata, Op. 96, and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. The two cello sonatas from Op. 102 seem to inhabit another world entirely, and exude an almost transcendental spirituality. And like Op. 96 and the Op. 110 piano sonata, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance (but most defiantly not resignation), created by a composer finally at peace with his life and his God.
This is reflected in the gentle, almost introspective opening of the Sonata in C major, Op. 102 no. 1, which was played with an expressive warmth by pianist and cellist, before the startling juxtaposition of a muscular and at times gruff Allegro vivace movement. A second slow introduction acts as a reminiscence of the opening, and provides a transition to the next quick movement. Buniatishvili and Mørk handled the mercurial nature of this music with neatness and clarity, catching Beethoven’s shifting moods, from songful lyricism to humour and wit, particularly in the final movement. This was a spirited and enjoyable account.
Step forward nearly 100 years, to the cusp of a new century, and to Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19: a piece on a grand scale, at times redolent of the Piano Concerto no. 2 (which was composed at the same time). Unlike the Beethoven, which was created at time of relative contentment in the composer’s life, this sonata was born out of depression, following the failure of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony.
Like the preceding sonata, the work has a slow introduction, and both musicians seemed much more at home in this repertoire, immediately settling into the work with evident empathy for its soaring statements and unashamed romanticism. In many ways, the piano is the dominant instrument in this work – it enjoys some of more dramatic gestures and episodes, especially in the second movement where the piano writing is reminiscent of the more rapid and sinister passages of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Khatia Buniatishvili brought characteristic intensity of expression to her playing, beautifully matched by Truls Mørk’s rich-toned lyricism.
The third movement seems to express more than the other two the vastness of the landscape of the composer’s homeland (a common thread in Rachmaninov’s music), with a lovely theme on the piano of great passion and expansive warmth. When the cello enters, the material broadens, much like the second movement of the Piano Concerto no. 2. Played with an affecting intimacy, this was, for me, the most moving of all four movements, in a work which was performed with a profound understanding of the music and the composer’s intentions. The finale was bright and vivacious, bringing to a close a most satisfying and engaging lunchtime recital.
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