Cello performance takes audience on romantic journey

Lecturers discussed Rubens’ “The Rape of Europa” from 1628-1629, a copy painted after Titian’s 1562 painting of the same subject. Photo courtesy of the Music Department.
Lecturers discussed Rubens’ “The Rape of Europa” from 1628-1629, a copy painted after Titian’s 1562 painting of the same subject. Photo courtesy of the Music Department.

Last Friday, Ron Feldman and Doris Stevenson performed a faculty recital in Brooks-Rogers Hall that took the audience through the history of cello music, from its formative baroque years to its adolescent romantic period and finally to maturity in contemporary tango. Feldman and Stevenson, cellist and pianist respectively, were joined by Nathaniel Parke and Andrew Rim ’20, both on cellos, and Ed Lawrence on harpsichord.

Domenico Gabrielli, a cello virtuoso as well as one of the first composers for solo cello, provided a fitting narrative exposition for the concert. The performance began with Feldman playing Gabrielli’s improvisatory ricercar on the solo cello. The ricercar maintains an even tone throughout, sparsely ornamented for a baroque piece. The music steadily climbs up the scale, then takes a smooth leap while pursuing an unvaried rhythm. It slows down just in time for the end. The ricercar was an introduction, preparing listeners for the “Canon for Two Celli,” in which Parke joins Feldman. The canon takes off running as one cello eagerly sprints forward. The other follows in imitation, always trailing a few bars behind. The two cellos flutter around each other, clad in heavy ornamentation, as themes get tossed from the first to the other. The pursuer never quite catches up to the first cello and resigns good-naturedly with a perfect cadence.

Following was the “Sonata in G Major” for cello and harpsichord. The first movement, “Grave,” starts off in a slow, swaying manner. The harpsichord accompanies in the background, tinkling chordal support. The movement culminates with a cacophonous conclusion.

After the three Gabrielli pieces, Feldman unveiled a surprise addition to the program: Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, Sarabande,” arranged for three cellos, with Rim joining the stage. “Sarabande” spans about five minutes, but Feldman informed listeners that they would perform the piece twice, once in the traditional baroque style, and once in a romantic style. The cellos play in unison. In 3/2 rhythm, the Sarabande is a regal, elegant dance that never breaks away from a smooth legato. It sounds like type of music that would inhabit a palace dancehall. For a moment, the piece dips into a somber minor before rising out of it. The second iteration immediately soaks the room with rapid vibrato. If the baroque rendition floats inside the dancehall, then the romantic version is a rainstorm that envelops the entire building. It has been transformed almost completely, now rippling with emotion. There is a tragic quality to the piece. Melodrama which was absent in the legato now reverberates through the air, providing a smooth transition into the next segment of the program.

Fast forwarding 200 years, Feldman and Stevenson introduced the audience to the beginning of the 20th century in Ernst von Dohnanyi’s “Sonata in B Flat Major for cello and piano, op. 8.” Despite being a Hungarian composer, Dohnanyi’s works align more closely with the German romantics, Feldman explains. In “Allegro ma non troppo,” the cello begins with the melody while the piano accompanies with arpeggio and a staccato that twinkles against the luxurious depth of the piece whenever Stevenson enters in the upper register. “Scherzo” is a another exciting movement; the audience is transported to a suspenseful scene by the cello’s and foreboding trill, and the nervous notes of the piano behind it. Then, as quickly as it began, the instruments stop. When they begin again, it is a different scene. The cello sings a smooth slow melody, lifted by the piano. However, it is not long before it elevates to a nervous itching hum again. The movement ends just out of peripheral vision punctuated a pizzicato, plucking, that vanishes as soon as it appears.

The last stop on Feldman’s recital — or really, musical journey — took the listener away from classical European traditions and toward the innovative tango music of Astor Piazzolla. His “Le Grand Tango” is a stunning and witty work. Stevenson provides the hypnotic syncopated rhythm that propels the tango forward. Jazz influences show up everywhere in the tango, imbuing the dance with an urban sharpness and edge. Here, the cello possesses a rock star charisma, no longer so cautious as it was in Gabrielli’s uptight Sonata. It swings and swoops sensuously both in pitch and volume. The piece compresses into a non-linear cacophony, gathering kinetic energy before it launches upwards and out in a glissando, a glide, on both the cello and piano. The audience burst out in applause.

In a way, Feldman and Stevenson’s recital could be a character study of the cello. Feldman introduced the cello as solo performer in Gabrielli, as regal dance in Bach and, in Dohnanyi, it underwent a reinvention as brooding and fickle storm. Finally, Feldman presented the cello as acrobat, leaving the audience with an ambiguous ending as to what might come next for the cello.