By Dennis D. Rooney
Cellist Jacob Shaw and pianist David Lau Magnussen brought to a close this season’s Classical Café concerts at the Duncan Theatre’s Stage West on March 29.
The room was designed for easily understood speech. Its dry acoustics reinforce that quality. Music fares less well there. Although these players did not especially seek tonal elegance, their attempts at it were certainly defeated by the room. Mid-range frequencies in it are stronger than upper or lower ones.
The balance between cello and piano suffered as a result, with Shaw often covered by his partner. Inasmuch as they are an experienced duo, I’m sure Magnussen did not intend that result.
Their program was delightfully unhackneyed, featuring three original works for cello and piano and three transcriptions. The first of the latter was “Nigun” by Ernst Bloch, the middle movement of his 1923 suite for violin and piano, Baal Shem, portraying scenes from Hasidic life. Long enjoying life as an independent concert piece, “Nigun” (Improvisation) has abundant melody and a highly emotional expression reflecting the ecstatic quality of Hebraic cantillation.
When played on the cello, however, the timbre of the melodic line suggests a chazzan with a cold in his head. Shaw’s 2007 instrument (by the French luthier Patrick Robin) possesses a forthright quality that was not quite able to surmount the roar from the Steinway of his partner. His eloquent account was also upset at times by some wayward intonation.
Edvard Grieg’s Sonata in A minor (Op. 36) was next. This is the composer’s largest chamber work, although his three violin sonatas are more frequently heard. There is an episodic feeling about much of the work, which seemed emphasized in the performance, which sometimes felt overplayed, due doubtless to the room acoustics. If not tightly controlled as to dynamics and articulation, the music can remind one of a big, friendly animal that occasionally knocks over a chair or runs into the furniture in its desire to please.
After intermission, original works continued with Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Op. 102). The title in English is Five Pieces in Folk Style, in keeping with Shaw’s programmatic scheme. Schumann was followed by a novelty: Habil-Sajahy by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zade (b. 1947). It emulates improvisation on Arabic and Persian instruments. Both cello and piano make use of unconventional sonorities. The first half of the 10-minute work had some haunting drone sonorities, but the second half was more conventionally exotic.
Two transcriptions of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas were commissioned by the Parisian publisher Max Eschig: For violin by Pavel Kochanski; and for cello by Maurice Maréchal (1892-1964), one of the greatest cellists of the last century’s first half. Both upset Falla’s original order and omit one song altogether, hence the title Suite populaire espagnole assigned to each.
Magnussen did not offer much in the way of color but Shaw supplied it, although slow tempos at times handicapped Falla’s rhythmic buoyancy. The most expressive playing of the suite, in “Asturiana,” was rudely interrupted by some thoughtless patron’s cellphone, whose marimba ringtone altogether destroyed the mood.
Béla Bartók originally wrote his Romanian Folk Dances (Sk. 56) for solo piano. His friend Zoltán Székely arranged them for violin and piano. Several transcriptions for cello and piano have been made by Luigi Silva and János Starker, among others. I couldn’t determine which one Shaw and Magnussen played, but it may have been a newer one by Hywel Davies.
The six linked dances proved a strong finish to the program. As an encore, they played the Andante tranquillo (“The Lady and the Dragoon”) in G, the fifth of Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.