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Monday, 30 November 2015

Russian Connections - and our connections to musical life and musicality

This is a review of a recital given by cellist Joy Lisney at Kings Place, London

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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30 November

This is a review of a recital given under the title Russian Connections by cellist Joy Lisney with her father, pianist James Lisney, a debut for both in Hall One at Kings Place, London, on Monday 30 November 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Igor Stravinsky (in collaboration with Gregor Piatigorsky) ~ Suite Italienne (1933) (an arrangement, for cello and piano, of numbers from his ballet-score Pulcinella (1920))

In the Introduzione, one straightaway realized what, sometimes, is the great and overt immediacy of Joy Lisney’s playing, and the richness of the interpretative means open to her in furtherance of that aim. Apart from this untamed opening, which was fiery in its own right, and no longer merely pleasant pastoral fare, lifted from Pergolesi, it could also just be the way in which she gave us that prominent held note (in the Serenata), or the muscularity, spontaneity, or sheer inventiveness with which she performed the third-movement Aria. Come the next movement, and her emotional dialogue with the work had her letting rip, giving the Tarantella full throttle.

Predictably (despite a listing of five movements in the programme-notes, but with a dance predicated on wild abandon, even madness), no one had counted that there had only been four, so James (@jameslisney) and Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) had to wait for keen applause to subside* before we could hear that Stravinksy does not intend the suite to end on that high-point, but with a Minuetto e Finale. Here, just as some sculptors say that they find the form within the block of stone, Joy seemed to be sensing the music within the instrument.

So, she responded to a definite pulse in the piano part, to which her part adds pizzicato notes, and energy was released as and into figuration, passion and the unplanned (though one reference that Joy and James had clearly picked up, in preparation for the event, was a little toreador mention). This was very good communication and listening, with James clearly watching for cues of Joy starting a phrase or coming off at the end of a long, bowed note, and fitting in with the inspirational nuances of the moment, and necessarily the piece was well received at Kings Place.

Benjamin Britten (dedicated to, and first performed by**, Mstislav Rostropovich) ~ Suite for Cello No. 3, Opus 87 (1971)

Joy Lisney gave us a few comments before presenting us with this most challenging, and assuredly insufficiently well-known, work for solo cello by Britten. She mentioned the Rostropovich connection, which is a fascinating fact of life to be reminded of, at the personal level between composers and muscians (and at the time of so much political distrust), how one is aware of more than one voice at some points, and, in this respect, how one could hear that Britten had been influenced by Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (BWV 1007–1012).

The suite is in nine parts, but performed without a pause, with – for being sure of the work’s progress – all that that entails. In the opening, marked Introduzione : Lento, one was quite aware of the intense theorbo-like resonance that Joy achieved (i.e. that instrument’s long, open bass-strings), and how this had the effect of rooting it in a ground-bass : not unlike with an undisclosed jazz standard (where one might not quite be able to put one’s finger on it, but know that one hears something 'in disguise'), Joy had also said that Britten has written variations on themes, but that he only clearly gives them to us at the end**.

Along with listening out for Bach’s voice, this description informed one’s listening, and, from the first, had one trying to assimilate often fragmentary elements of tonality and melody. In the Marcia : Allegro, perhaps there seemed to be a little hint of Shostakovich (and, later, Bartók ?), and the tone-quality of a pizzicato gesture that, in octaves, now resembled the fretted strings of a theorbo / lute, as it chimed alongside another line of music. Soon, in the Canto : Con moto, it was more like that of a guitar (or a plucked lyre), and Britten sounds to be in dialogue with Bach's Suite No. 1 (BWV 1007).

Probably having already reached Dialogo : Allegretto (via the Barcarolla : Lento), it certainly seemed a just description of what could be experienced – the competing demands of the poles of the player’s physical athleticism around the strings, and the expressiveness of the instrument and the texture of the composition. In the rapt space of Hall One, and at a crux where the material was ceasing to be difficult (and to become more open), one could see that Joy was self-aware as a performer, and fully alive in the act of being one, as she asserted what she found in this suite.

As one can safely state, without the need to give many more examples, Joy demonstrated in the concert-hall both the very great expressive possibilities in this work, and the variety of means through which she could give rise to them. (Likewise, one is trying here to outline the scope of a work that is best, as on the night, heard live – which, of course, is just as true of the Bach suites. That said, it assisted a little to have noticed the words Moto perpetuo earlier, and, knowing that one was hearing one, be able to place roughly where one was.)

More explicitly than earlier (what Britten had written had been more like hints at parts before), we heard the very lowest register openly talking to the top string, and then addressing an even higher, fluting / piping one. This progress towards integration of disparate voices not only put one in mind of the extreme fragmentation of musical lines in some of Bach’s writing for solo violin, but also indicated the sense of cohesion that presumably gives the performer the conviction to propel this piece across a fully felt trajectory to its conclusion.

Reminiscent of summative or restorative concluding movements in Bach’s writing for solo cello, there was a soaring, folk-dance quality to the final Passacaglia : Lento solenne (which, again, reminded fleetingly of Bartók). In the event, Britten ended not with rejoicing, but throaty, breathed, very quiet utterances, and one long sostenuto. After a long time of reflective appreciation, the audience burst into applause for this highly impressive playing.

* * * * *

At the end of the recital (but relevant to mention now), it was intended as a compliment to Joy’s playing and to James’ and her choice of repertoire to say that it had been a very varied programme – except that even a definite form of spoken words can bear a range of meanings in a recipient’s mind. Or the fact that some might say so, but one could validly interpret that they were thereby imputing something negative***, without being direct ?

Completed in November 1901, the main work in the second half was written 70 years earlier than that with which we had concluded the first, and so the two short arrangements (by Piatigorsky again) of Tchaikovsky that preceded quietly helped bridge the gap with something as different as the Britten (which were Valse Sentimentale and None but the Lonely Heart (Op. 51, No. 6. (1882), and Op. 6, No. 6 (1869), respectively)) – suffice to say, long, lyrical lines, and a sense of yearning.

Sergei Rachmaninov ~ Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor (1901), Opus 19 :

1. Lento - Allegro moderato
2. Allegro scherzando
3. Andante
4. Allegro mosso

The opening Lento of the Sonata for Cello and Piano is exploratory, elegiac, and one heard that Joy was both giving an awareness of the music reaching, and saying that it cannot, on the scale of the whole, yet be felt to be reaching too far. Particularly here for piano, under James Lisney’s adept hands, Rachmaninov’s writing felt very typical of his Piano Concerto No. 2, so it fits well to find that he was composing it at this time (between autumn 1900 and April 1901, his Opus 18, in C Minor) : in terms of chordal progression, and the way in which the cello part develops, one already gets the sense that its voice is more modest, or at least that it feels more difficult for it to be as exposed as the piano part.

Though excellently weaving their roles together, James reflected standing, as if in orchestral terms, more in relation to an ensemble and to tutti passages, with the cello having the work of finding the most fleeting, innermost tenderness, and of giving a real emotional turmoil, especially in freer passages. When Rachmaninov intimated nearing the movement’s end, still he gave us more gradations of feeling, and led us, not yet into a coda, but to James giving us the principal theme on piano. In this way, and in service of the form of the composition, the duo had brought us to where the sonata felt more relaxed, and with a little glimpse of serenity, before a coda that – when it came – held off.

At the start of a movement marked Allegro scherzando, we heard the electricity of the raw, vital bass-line, with Joy expressionistically sawing the note, and, again with a hint of serenity in the midst of what else Rachmaninov is about here (including echoing the cello in a rumble on the piano) : there is tension to be found in this C Minor scherzando, amidst a part for cello that Joy gave a vocal character, and with one for piano that seemed both near and attentive.

In the year of this sonata, Rachmaninov also wrote his Prelude in G Minor (which, with nine others (as No. 5), was published as his Ten Preludes (1903), Opus 23), and one again has a sense of those kindred works. Moving away from the tension in the writing, he sets the cello off onto a statement, but soon enough brings it back to where it was : throughout the movement, Joy kept us gripped with the sensation that, in musical terms, she could help us glimpse whatever it might be to which the work was pointing, whether regret, yearning, or loss. In this way, Rachmaninov felt quite Schumannesque, alluding to what parts of the surface of the work want (at this stage) to deny.

The Andante has us hear the piano alone first (again, in Rachmaninov’s familiar idiom), and which is then above the cello-line when it enters – whose endeavour, under Joy’s hands, was building the beauty of the given theme, although there continue to be moments when we hear piano solo. If there is a sense of being on a scale where the music is reaching to be elsewhere, restraint is still being exercised, but we had a gradual feeling that the mood was easier, and more restorative, as the parts meshed and engaged with each other :

Partly that impression comes from their greater interchangeability as to which was in the higher register. Although the piano is placed briefly above the cello near the end of the movement (following, together and separately, some quietly insightful keyboard writing), it ultimately ends with them on a soft par, but with the final notes from piano solo.

In talking about the opening movement (above), it was mentioned that the composition of this sonata was contemporaneous with that of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (in C Minor), which is famous not least both through his status as a concert pianist***** and its place in the soundtrack to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) : it is worth saying that it was not used for nothing by Lean, so to remind us that Rachmaninov makes it easy for us to build (our own) narratives around getting to such exuberance as we are to find in the closing Allegro.

Having kept us waiting (even if the very opening of the sonata is a subtle foreshadowing ?), what he presents us with here is the biggest melody in the piece (along with, in the light of it, the cello’s continuing apparent path of adaptation of its part to its circumstance). James had some coy downwards arpeggios preparatory to, and then providing contrast to, Joy’s searching in and exploring the lusciousness of this material – and then, of a sudden, Rachmaninov signals a change, with a decisive gesture from the cello, and with marching rhythms written just for the piano.

With an earnest tone set, and as the cello voice begins some gentle arpeggios, one senses that it is still in need of, and responding to, a form of encouragement, and it becomes further in accord with the piano-writing : in the growing self-realization, vigour develops, and Rachmaninov, rhythmically and in energetic terms, creates feelings of being on the verge of ending, and so of resolving what is happening with the theme.

From the piano first, a few reflective notes end up being all that the cello requires in order to lead to and address the full implications of the main theme, but, having done so, there is a need for a few quieter moments, as of breathing and mentally working through feelings. After the cello has joined in with a soaring peal, and the march-like figure has recurred, we revisited that more tranquil status, but the certainty and enthusiasm of the conclusion was secured now – as was the very great applause with which this performance was received, with a number of people in the audience standing to show their approval !

The compellingly framed performance of the sonata closed this debut evening at Kings Place, full of energy, invention and passion.


* Also, having heard this happen before, when they gave this work another time (and Joy approached it as a less adventuresome performer than now), it almost deserves the health warning : when the piece sounds as if it is over, hold back, as it does not conclude there.

** Joy has talked on her blog more about the Russian Connections tour, and the repertoire, the composers, and other connections. The first performance was at The Maltings, Snape, on 21 December 1974.

*** In terms of a ‘traditional’ way of putting concerts together, maybe so, but it is not for nothing that some value the approach of ensembles such as Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) : at lunch-time the following day in Cambridge (at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH)), for the first of this season’s one-hour At Lunch series, three members of the Sinfonia gave us Beethoven (from 1800), a new commission (by Edward Nesbit), Brahms (from 1853), and a work (from 2008) by the orchestra’s principal pianist Huw Watkins (@WatkinsHuw).

**** If we consider that Britten was established as a composer by 1935 at the latest, and since Rachmaninov lived until 28 March 1943 (and, probably not helpfully to his survival, was working to the last), the men do actually have a significant overlap to their composing lives.

***** Although they have wrongly and for too many decades been disregarded – along with many of his works – he had toured with that work, his third concerto (in D Minor, Opus 30), and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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