Perhaps cellist David Finckel has a photographic memory, but I was nevertheless impressed when, at the Library of Congress last night, he played three substantial sonatas from memory. (Worse, three sonatas by Russian composers; worse again, three sonatas by Russian composers of the modern era; and thrice worse, one of them was a new work from 2002.) With his wife and duo partner, pianist Wu Han, the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet soared through the evening's program without a net and never looked down, although at least some of his careful glances toward his partner may have actually been directed at the score on her Steinway's stand. (Perhaps it was her outfit that caught his attention: bright red stiletto heels and a colorful red knee-length chemise, complete with red tasseled fringe and the image of Frida Kahlo, as she painted herself, on front and back.)
The duo began with Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, op. 119. This piece, composed in 1949, has had an illustrious performance history, since it was composed for a young cellist Prokofiev met at the end of his life, named Mstislav Rostropovich (who premiered it for the Soviet Composers' Union, with pianist Sviatoslov Richter). Since this is a work probably conceived for, and certainly approved by, the Soviet cultural apparatus, I should not be surprised at how tonal it is. After an elegiac first movement, the second and third movements are examples of Prokofiev's whimsical humor, but without the perverse dissonance, for the most part. Finckel displayed an easy mastery of the harmonic and pizzicato effects, and both performers played with great flair.
For me, the highlight of the concert was the Washington premiere of Lera Auerbach's Sonata No. 1 for Violoncello and Piano. The Coolidge Auditorium has been home to so many premieres of new music over the years, because of the interests of its namesake, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the great American patrons of music in the last century (read this post for more information on Mrs. Coolidge). The Coolidge may have one of the most receptive audiences for new music in the country, because the Library encourages (requires, really) performers to present new music and premieres are usually greeted with enthusiasm. That being said, the audience applauded especially long and heartily for this sonata, composed by Ms. Auerbach in 2002, and I found it to be the most rewarding piece on the program (and I love Prokofiev).
Last fall, I read a lot of blog talk about why there are no Mozarts in our time. This got started, as I recall, by the appearance of a child prodigy named Jay Greenberg on the television show 60 Minutes. A. C. Douglas got the ball rolling [God (or Whatever) Protect Him, November 28, 2004] at sounds & fury:
The kid sees and hears his compositions the way Mozart did his -- in his head, complete (and in Greenberg's case, orchestrated) -- and simply copies them out when he feels ready. On lightning-brief acquaintance, this kid appears to me to be the Real Deal (I refuse to so much as even entertain the thought that it may just be wishful thinking on my part). God (or Whatever), Greenberg's gift, and his own confidence in that gift, protect him from falling into the clutches of "New Music" academics and his less gifted (or no-talent) New Music peers, or, rather, near-peers (in respect of age), who absent that protection might succeed in persuading him he's writing his music in a dead language, and ought to instead compose in a language more this-century. If Greenberg resists, perhaps this century will find in him a composer of genius the likes of which has not been seen since Mozart or Mendelssohn.ACD's various updates, responding to other bloggers who commented on his post, cover most of the relevant commentary, so you can follow the links from his post. (I would add, however, Alex Ross's post at The Rest Is Noise and one of his columns in The New Yorker earlier in the year.) ACD's view on this matter—"simply expressing the hope that Greenberg would not abandon the language of tonality in his compositions" (his own words, taken from the Comments section), as if Mozart or Mendelssohn themselves should not have abandoned Palestrina-style counterpoint instead of writing in what was, then, a contemporary style—is not the point. The point is where are the composer prodigies? Ladies and gentlemen, look no further than Lera Auerbach.
Lera Auerbach, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffe
The piece hangs together very well, and the four movements each have an individual character but are also of a piece. Auerbach uses all the sounds available to a 21st-century composer: 5/4 meter in an off-kilter waltz in the first movement and shifting metric changes in the third movement; ghostly effects on the cello bridge and deep murky clusters in the bottom octave of the piano; in the best eastern European tradition, a Lament second movement (see my comments on this type of movement in a previous review), which alternates more or less pure triads with crushing dissonances from Messiaen and beyond; an emphasis on the semitone interval in the theme that binds the piece together, set into motion in the cello trills of the last movement, which made Finckel's instrument sound like a hive of angry bees (this after other moments in which he is called to pretend he is playing a guitar, with strumming and plucking). Finckel and Han, to whom Auerbach dedicated the sonata and by whom it was premiered, played the piece with obvious devotion and energy. When they left the stage for intermission, they seemed exhausted.
The second half consisted of Rachmaninov's Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor, op. 19. I have written previously of my aversion to Rachmaninov, and the saccharine melodies of this piece had their expected effect. The audience loved it, and I mostly rolled my eyes. At least this piece is relatively early (premiered in 1901), so the style is not yet truly retrogressive, although the treacle-meter was in the red zone in the first and fourth movements. In the second movement (Allegro scherzando), I couldn't quite place what other composer Rachmaninov seemed to be channeling. If the movement is a joke (scherzo), it's a dark one. Binary meter, with ostinato triplets, a short low rumbling bass motif: it's Schubert's Erlkönig! Not a real quotation but an evocation, whether conscious or subconscious.
In the fourth movement especially, this sonata veers toward the kind of schmaltzy bathos found in the worst New Age imitations of Rachmaninov's music. Just as Adam Kirsch observed about the popularity of e. e. cummings among teenagers (an article in Harvard Magazine, brought to my attention by the Rake), there is a reason why the teenage compositions I receive from students from time to time all sound like precious Rachmaninov. Imagine my dismay when Wu Han, halting the ringing ovations, announced their encore with the words, "How can we play a Russian program without the Vocalise?" This is not to criticize the playing, which was invariably fine, but merely the expression of a personal bias. No more Rachmaninov, please.
The next concert at the Library of Congress, on May 12 at 8 pm, will feature the early music group Akademie für alte Musik, from Berlin.
See also the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, May 2).