Zara Nelsova: Grande Dame of the Cello
Selections: BOCCHERINI: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major; MARTINU: Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano; BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69; KABALEVSKY: Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 49; (Bonus Track:) CHOPIN: Largo from Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65
With John Newmark, piano/ Grant Johannesen, piano (Chopin) Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Alexander Brott
Studio: VAI DVD 4370
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W and color
Audio PCM Mono
Length: 70 minutes
This elegantly modest DVD captures the art of Canadian master cellist Zara Nelsova (1920-2002) in repertory relatively rare in her catalogue of commercial performances, except for the Beethoven A Major Sonata (24 January 1962). The main menu includes concerts taped 1955-1962, while the bonus track with her husband, pianist Grant Johannesen, dates from 9 February 1972. A pupil of Herbert Walenn, Gregor Piatagorsky, Emanuel Feuermann, and Pablo Casals, Zelsova molded her own lean, athletic style, with an extremely fast vibrato. Her long association with composer Ernest Bloch led to some creative collaborations, in particular, his dedication of his three unaccompanied cello suites to her. She took American citizenship in 1955 and became the first American soloist to tour the Soviet Union in 1966.
For the opening Boccherini Sonata (14 February 1961), Nelsova excludes the last movement and reverses the order of the first two, thus creating an Adagio and Allegro in early classical style. Nelsova sits in a huge spotlight, a kind of halo, the camera occasionally zooming to the bridge of her cello and fixed on her hands, with a studious John Newmark providing the accompaniment. The camera opens on the actual music before Newmark of Martinu’s Second Sonata (14 February 1961), then it cuts to Zelsova, who turns her own pages while she realizes the intricate, modal lines of Martinu’s darkly passionate work. The second movement Largo has some impressive cadenzas for solo piano, and the camera allows us to see John Newmark who could have had an impressive solo career. The last movement, Allegro commodo, begins as a toccata, then Nelsova’s musical sweeps up rapturously while Newmark’s quick staccati punctuate the ungainly dance that ensues and explodes in its conclusion.
The Beethoven A Major Sonata is the most lyrically expansive of his five works in the genre, and its structure follows a pattern we find in the Archduke Trio and Hammerklavier Sonata. The camera comes into Nelsova’s high left hand position just as the first movement theme opens up Allegro after the slow introduction. Unlike the Martinu, which kept Nelsova’s eyes glued to the score, the Beethoven is such an old friend that she plays with her eyes closed, relishing her own sound. Suave, lean phrasing marks the pungent Scherzo, which Nelsova still manage to imbue with intimate flights of fancy, her left hand leaning into the strings with steely vigor. The opening of the Adagio cantabile is a double exposure of the two artists, then a long shot in perspective from Newmark’s piano. Then it’s all Nelsova, lost in a melodic trance until the quicksilver segue into Allegro vivace. Nice camera shot past Nelsova’s left elbow back to Newmark’s light-fingered accompaniment.
The Kabelevsky Concerto (6 January 1955) is one of three concerted works written under the aegis “Youth,” for Soviet virtuosi. Some elegant scoring for the woodwinds plays against Nelsova’s high- sounding cello, along with the witty quips typical of Kabalevsky’s breezy style. The camera stays fairly mid-shot, with occasional sojourns onto the clarinet or just behind, left, of Nelsova so we can see her and Brott in perspective. The somber Moderato movement features soft interplay for cello and French horn, then a virtuoso Cadenza section in which Nelsova communes openly. The camera sits on Nelsova’s bridge for the final Allegro, then pulls back as the music speeds up, the orchestral part shimmering and plucking vivaciously. One final, lyrical song – shades of Borodin and Khachaturian for melodic riches – and then a round dance which ends with a resounding thud. The Chopin Sonata excerpt enjoys vivacious color, with Nelsova wearing a lavender dress and a monster string of pearls. The sound is stunning – never mind it’s only mono – and Johannesen is his velvet self. Gorgeous on all counts.