A Combination That Should Have Been Ideal
The Frick Collection
02/12/2020 - & January 10 (Annapolis), 14 (Orono), 15 (Rockland), 18 (Houghton), 19 (Rochester), 23 (North Bethesda), March 25 (Naples), 26 (Jacksonville), 27 (Jacksonville), 2020
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat, BWV 998 (arr. Galbraith)
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A minor “Arpeggione”, D. 821 (arr. Galbraith)
Clóvis Pereira: Three Dances from Suite Macambira
André Mehmari: Suite Brasileira No. 2 (Five Places from an Imaginary Brazil)
Radamés Gnattali: Sonata for Cello and Guitar
Antônio Meneses (cello), Paul Galbraith (guitar)
On paper it all looked splendid: two formidable soloists join ranks in a duo recital, offering some well-known and some rare works (though not to the guitar world), performed in an acoustically near-ideal space. What could go wrong?
In the end, only one of the instruments could be heard reasonably well, and the other, which should not be relegated to a strictly accompanying role, was alas barely audible. What made the situation worse – of which I learned only after their recital – was that the guitar, of which we heard too little, was already amplified. Such are the Frick Collection oval room acoustical properties – bowed string instruments are at an advantage and an even such fabulous soloist as Paul Galbraith could do nothing to successfully compete with the bright, resonant, spirited sound of his cello-partner Antônio Meneses.
For those readers to whom the name of Paul Galbraith is yet unknown, for more than two decades he has secured for himself an enviable position as one of the world’s foremost guitar virtuosos, and one that often delves into repertory originally written for keyboard or bow-strings. Galbraith also plays on a guitar that he himself designed and that features eight strings rather than the traditional six. His guitar is supported by a metal endpin (similar to that of cello), which rests on a wooden resonance box. The eight strings and extraordinary design of this guitar effectively increase its range and possibilities to an extent never before possible. The player now can create much larger volume, richness and depth and also has the ability to execute works from the pianist’s repertory, which Mr. Galbraith often includes in his recital programs.
Such was the case of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 which opened the program: it was designated by the composer for “lute or keyboard” and it is, as any polyphonic work, especially difficult to be played on the guitar, yet it became part of the instrument’s repertory. It features many complexities in the outer parts as well as rich counterpoint in the middle fugue. All these intricacies and difficulties were easily conquered by the imposing skills of our virtuoso, whose performance exuded a sense of calm and lack of effort. Only in the concluding Allegro could one have wished for a tad more liveliness (much easier to achieve on harpsichord), which would have contributed a little more spark and character to the performance.
Next Mr. Meneses joined forces to perform Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata. I am afraid that I last heard this cellist when he was still an eloquent member of the Beaux Arts Trio, the unforgettable ensemble created by Menahem Pressler, with whom later he recorded a very fine version of the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Cello. It was good to have him on stage again. In the past, I have heard some Schubert vocal cycles such as Die schöne Müllerin performed with guitar accompaniment rather than piano and it worked surprisingly well. Since the piano part for the Schubert sonata, written for a hybrid instrument (the arpeggione), is not particularly demanding one would expect that the combination of cello and guitar would work just fine. The instrument for which Schubert intended that work was a newly invented creature (a cross between violoncello and guitar), alas, there no preserved copies of this hybrid, however its name has been forever stuck to this amiable sonata, which however confronts the soloist with huge technical demands. The “Arpeggione”, as it is popularly known, has been transcribed to whole host of instruments and other than on cello we can frequently hear it performed on viola, double bass, flute or clarinet – I am probably missing a few! Among cellists this sonata has a reputation of being treacherous because much of the score requires playing in the very highest register and few performers come away unscathed. Mr. Meneses was largely, if not completely, successful in fighting those high-tessitura issues and delivered a musical, sensitive and over all attractive reading. His tight, fast vibrato worked especially well in the Adagio, a gorgeous song that only Schubert could conceive; there Mr. Meneses’ timbre reminded me a bit of the great old master Feuermann. The concluding Allegretto combined graceful elegance, simplicity and the required virtuosity, as once again Schubert sends his player to the highest register of the instrument. It was regrettable that for most of the sonata the contribution of the guitar was barely noticeable: there was one brief exception in the finale, when both instruments started to sound comparable when playing pizzicatos but it didn’t last long.
In the second part of the program, we heard the music of the three Brazilian composers: Clóvis Pereira (b.1932), André Mehmari (b.1977) and Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988). The first two of the works – Three Dances from Suite Macambira for solo cello by Pereira (from 2007) and Suite Brasileira No. 2 by Mr. Mehmari (from 2018) were written for our two players.
In the first piece, the cello was for once telling a story and the language, though different of course, was not all that distant from the solo utterances heard in violin part in Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade. One could also find references to many European sources where the language was deeply rooted in the traditional, tonal writing for the instrument but tinted with a local, Latin flavor. If I understood the cellist’s intro, he replaced the middle piece of the Suite with another song-like movement, quite effective and, according to our cellist, telling a story of a blind man begging for alms and accompanying himself on violin, guitar and accordion. The Dança característica was a pleasant folksy song, yet a bit too repetitive.
I don’t know to what degree the following suite of short Spanish-tinged songs Suite Brasileira No. 2 (written for our duo) was influenced by imaginary Brazil or by Spain, but the five short, wistful or catchy tunes with the cello leading and guitar barely audible was a very nice set. In some such as “Cordisburgo do sul,” the cello and guitar momentarily shared the pizzicato textures and there the similar timbre allowed both instruments to display comparable qualities. I liked the last part (“Andura”): vigorous, restless and rustic. Never mind that it sounded a bit generic; the music was still most enjoyable and I doubt it could be played much better.
The official part of the program ended with Sonata for Cello and Guitar (1969) by Radamés Gnattali, a work that gained some popularity among similar duos. The prevailing sense was that we heard it somewhere previously, but it is possible that a steady diet of the same textures (the melodious/leading cello line with the soft guitar accompaniment), the exploitation of traditional rhythmic patterns and overall analogous, standard mood permitted this listener to feel that he was listening to compositions that offer not too much diversity regardless of how impressively they are played.
We heard one encore, and an arrangement of the most famous work by the most famous Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Aria from the Bachiana Brasileiras No. 5, originally written as a vocalise for soprano and eight cellos. Mr. Meneses cheerfully introduced himself as the soprano in this arrangement and it worked quite effectively. At the return of the vocalise, Mr. Meneses came closest to what he seemed to be unable to offer during the recital: he was actually trying not so much to sing as to hum and what a nice effect it created.
And thus for me, it was going to be the last encounter with this august room in which during its eight decades of concerts lucky New Yorkers were able, for many years even for free, to hear the most fantastic musicians of the era. I will miss it albeit I trust the new room – multi-purpose as we are told – which will replace this one will also boast superb acoustics and less noise coming from the air-conditioning vents. And maybe with the new advent, we the listeners will even get program booklets with the program notes that are sometimes sorely needed. After all, how many of us in the audience would be able to name any other composition of Gnattali, Mehmari or Pereira? I surely was not among them.