Dialogo – John-Henry Crawford, Cello – Orchid Classics

by | Jul 18, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

DIALOGO = BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99; LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello; SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40 – John-Henry Crawford, cello/ Victor Santiago Asuncion, piano – Orchid Classics ORC 100166, 62:27 (4/22/21) [www.orchidclassics.com] ****:

 Much-touted American cello virtuoso John-Henry Crawford joins Filipino pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion in this 2019 recital that features Crawford’s 200-year-old instrument that had belonged to his grandfather, the cello smuggled out of Austria in 1938 to avoid confiscation or destruction by the Nazis. 

The program opens with the 1886 Brahms Sonata No. 2 in F Major, written for the virtuoso Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), who played in the Joachim String Quartet. Between 1886-1889, Brahms found a creative and agreeable atmosphere by Lake Thun in Switzerland, in the village of Hofsettin. There, he conceived his Violin Sonata in A Major and the darker Third Sonata for Violin in D Minor. Brahms had recovered some of his youthful exuberance, and his F Major Sonata for Cello abounds with passionate vigor. Crawford’s ample tone in the opening Allegro vivace more  than suggests the kind of resonant power some us recall from Gregor Piatagorsky, even in the high registers or low bass C, while the opening movement’s piano part has Asuncion in chromatic passages and huge tremolos. The music often proceeds in storms and stresses alternating between C and F, then retreats into C Major or its relative A Minor. Both tension and high exuberance manifest themselves in this truly exciting first movement; add riveted, we await the Adagio affettuoso second movement. 

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Set in F-sharp Major, the sectionalized Adagio, opening pizzicato and already haunted in the melody, allows Crawford to intone a luxurious swan-song. A percussive, music-box effect carries us into C-sharp Major. The melody’s second part gravitates into a tragic and troubled F Minor. The middle section finds F-sharp Major, a key that Brahms acolyte Elizabeth von Herzogenberg relished, but the touching song proceeds in D Major. This powerful and sentimental movement concludes with an epilogue.

“Inward and propulsive,” as Herzogenberg described it, the Scherzo in F Minor has its own menace in double sixths, with potent gallops in the keyboard part. The Trio proceeds in F Major, and its marking, dolce espressivo, perfectly describes the effect. The middle section, in D-flat Major, casts a consoling shadow before we return to the da capo. Much of the tenor of this energized music reminds us of the last movement of Symphony No. 3, which no less gravitates between F Major and F Minor. In rondo form, the finale, Allegro molto, may feel abbreviated, given the girth of the preceding two movements. The tone of the music seems amiable, like the marking in the Second Violin Sonata, also from Thun. Though traversing such colors as A Minor, B-flat Minor, and G-flat Major provide, the sense of affectionate, almost gypsy nonchalance from our performing duo pervades a movement meant to sweep us up in its joie de vivre.

The Solo Sonata (1948; 1953) of György Ligeti results from a dual evolution: in 1948, as a student at the Budapest Music Academy, he suffered an unrequited love for cellist Anouss Vranyi, who had asked him for a vehicle for performance; hence, the Dialogo, written in a folk-like idiom as a love-duet. In 1953, Ligeti met cellist Vera Dénes, whose request for a piece led him compose a complement for the Dialogo in the form of a Capriccio, in a virtuoso style in homage to Nicolo Paganini. 

The Dialogo clearly wants to resonate with hearty melody inspired by Zoltan Kodaly’s Hungarian style, here confined to the C, G, and A strings, often in double stops. The Capriccio forces Crawford to expend bravura energy, playing as fast as possible in alternate legato and pizzicato passages, tremolando, in passing harmonics, all indicative of the influence of Bartok’s notion of a display piece. Soviet authorities disowned the sonata, declaring it “too modern” for a taste that demanded all music be “heroic, bright, and beautiful” in accord with “victorious progressive principles of reality.” The Solo Sonata did not receive a second performance after its 1953 premiere until 1979.

Portrait Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich

The Shostakovich Cello Sonata (1934), coincidentally, was a great vehicle for Gregor Piatagorsky, whose dramatic yet lyrical tone seems to haunt the playing of John-Henry Crawford. Russian cellist Viktor Kubatsky of the Bolshoi Theatre had requested the work of Shostakovich, who at the time was torn romantically between wife Nina Varzar and a twenty-year-old student, Yelena Konstantinovskaya. The opening movement, Allegro non troppo Shostakovich completed in two days, and its classical construction attests to the composer’s admiration for Beethoven. The music proceeds and halts in romantic, ardent gestures, the second theme in B Major; and a menacing rhythm will later transform the opening melody into a dirge, marked Largo, with the cello muted. The keyboard part clearly has been conceived for the composer’s own gifts, especially in octaves in driven motion.

The ensuing Allegro (scherzo) projects the bustling, manic, raucous energy we associate with Shostakovich and his gifted contemporary, Prokofiev. A mixture of delicacy and rustic coarseness, the movement asks Crawford for glissandos in harmonics while pianist Asuncion plays octaves. A slinky lyricism arises almost in spite of the jarring effects. Crawford’s cello opens the Largo movement, a melodic line that evolves in slow meditation, perhaps a commentary on the tensions of the composer’s love life in 1934. Asuncion has a three-note ostinato that doubtless has undercurrents for composer and audience. Passing discords create a sense of unease beneath the surface tranquility. Asuncion’s piano assumes the main theme while the cello line becomes increasingly distraught. The coda yields to grieving melancholy. The finale, Allegro, clearly calls on irony as a form of recuperative power: the dance tune alludes to a Beethoven rondo, here infested with punishing counterpoint and marked by the bravura and cadenza filigree we know from the Op. 35 Piano Concerto No. 1. The music seems less a collaboration than a fierce rivalry for sonic supremacy, in which the cello eventually overtakes the piano’s 16ths. A tour de force to the very end, the music permits Crawford to cede to the piano a moment of dignity we call the coda. 

–Gary Lemco

Dialogo by Crawford, Album Cover

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