Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Geoffrey Burleson are on a concert tour, to promote their new CD, Odd Couple, recently featured on NPR. Their travels brought them to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Sunday night for a sold-out concert, featuring all but one of the four selections on the recording. Haimovitz and Burleson may have doubts about the compatibility of their two instruments, a misgiving reflected in the CD's title, but the program is centered on two of the more convincing sonatas for this pairing.
Odd Couple, M. Haimovitz and G. Burleson
(released September 16, 2008)
Elliott Carter, soon to celebrate his centenary while still alive, wrote his Sonata for Cello and Piano back in 1948, when he was a mere 40 years old. The piece is in the less stringently serialized style of the composer's early works, and Haimovitz did more to champion it by his introduction, which clearly primed many in the audience to listen to it with open ears. Haimovitz's tone was slightly fragile and timorous in the first movement, but a jazzy fizz bubbled into the second movement's free sense of rhythmic disjunction. There were hints of cantillation or Asian folk melody in the third movement and more pointillistic textures in the fourth.
Where Haimovitz and Burleson did sound like an odd couple was in an unconvincing and possibly under-rehearsed Beethoven fifth sonata (D major, op. 102, no. 2). The dry acoustic exacerbated the cello's jejune tone and the piano's hammered, sometimes rough octaves. It would have been better, surely, for the duo instead to play the remaining piece on the CD, by Augusta Read Thomas. The most recent work in the program fared better, David Sanford's 22 Part I, the composer's tribute to the omnipresence of the number 22 in his life. Haimovitz and Burleson clearly felt most at home with the modern pieces, this one above all. Sanford's sense of rhythm, influenced by later jazz like the music of Ornette Coleman, is just as complex as the most serialized atonal pieces. What jazz avoids, unlike the "atomization of rhythm" (as John Adams put it) in the post-Darmstadt composers, is a regularity, a metricality that allows the ear to follow complex patterns with greater ease of understanding. Haimovitz and Burleson drew out the many coloristic effects in the second movement, especially many slithering and fluttering passages for the cello, and the jagged rhythms all somehow added up to a whole rather than sounding like fractured splinters.
The final work, Samuel Barber's op. 6 sonata, is more consciouly backward-looking, with a Brahmsian delight in low sonorities and in hemiola and duple-triple oppositions. Here Haimovitz's tone finally opened up into a luminous, passionate howl in the second movement, and again there were jazz-influenced harmonies in the third movement, which seemed to hover between earnest Brahmsian rhapsody and something heard in a hotel barroom. Many of the shifts between tempi seemed unnecessarily exaggerated, and a certain rhythmic freedom (or laxness) was noticeable, as it was to my ears in Haimovitz's recording of the Bach cello suites. The encore made Barber's tribute to Brahms clear, with a substantial movement from the latter composer's second cello sonata, op. 99.
Mark J. Estren, Matt Haimovitz and Geoffrey Burleson (Washington Post, September 16)
The next concert in the Polinger Artists of Excellence Concerts Series at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville, will feature the Brillaner Duo with cellist Amit Peled (November 2, 7:30 pm).