Friedrich Kleinhapl (cellist) & Andreas Woyke (pianist) at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

This afternoon, Peoples' Symphony Concerts presented a program in their Festival Series at Town Hall in Times Square, with German cellist and pianist Freidrich Kleinhapl and Andreas Woyke.  I'd not heard of either before getting the publicity for this seasons' concerts, but since then have noticed some reviews of Kleinhapl's recording in the record magazines.  He has made a fair number of recordings for a young guy, and has won a fair number of awards, as has Woyke, his regular recital partner.

The first half of the program began with Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1891) by Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942).  Solidly tonal, tuneful, and listener-friendly, these proved a good way to introduce the performers to the audience.  One could tell right off the bat that Kleinhapl, a diminutive guy with a big cello, also has a big tone and good technique.  Woyke, who towered over his musical partner, gets a nice sound out of the piano and clearly has the chops for demanding stuff.

Next up was the Cello Sonata No. 1 by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  Schnittke is widely admired and respected by many prominent musicians, but I've never really "gotten" his music.  To me, it is uninspired and boring, so I don't blame the musicians that I was bored with this performance.  Certainly it was not for lack of trying on their part.  The piece consists of two very slow movements surrounding a perpetual motion "presto".  I heard lots of sound but very little inspiration, and nothing that would suggest that repeat listening would be rewarding.

The first half ended with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 5, Op. 102, No. 2, in D Major.  I don't find Beethoven particularly inspired in cello & piano mode, either.  The Cello Sonatas seem to me to be distinctly second-class by comparison to his violin sonatas and the solo piano sonatas.  That said, there was certainly more "meat" here to appreciate than in the Schnittke, and Kleinhapl and Woyke proved to be enthusiastic interpreters, although I found Kleinhapl's tone tended to get a bit rough in the faster moments of the outer movements.

After intermission came the highlight of the concert for me, Friedrich Gulda's Cadenza for Cello (1980).  Gulda (1930-2000) was best known as a brilliant if sometimes eccentric concert pianist who was a major mentor for, among others, Martha Argerich.  The Cadenza, unaccompanied of course, is an inspired ramble through the kinds of things one would expect to find in the cadenza of a demented cello concerto, and it was totally fun, played with great panache by Kleinhapl.

The formal program concluded with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata.  This is an early work, from around the time of the 2nd Piano Concerto, and has many stylistic resemblances to it.  At times, it seems more like a piano sonata with cello obbligato, and Kleinhapl occasionally seemed overmatched by Woyke.  Part of this is unavoidable, given the range of the cello and the "thickness" of Rachmaninoff's writing for piano.  The composer was also most at home at the keyboard – the cello being more foreign territory – and it shows in some misjudged balances being written into the music.  I also think this is a piece that requires rather more imagination from the performers than Kleinhapl and Woyke could summon.  All the notes were there, and much of the necessary passion, but things could have been phrased and shaped with more imagination.  This is a piece that needs to have the performers really sell it to the audience, and I didn't feel as much selling was going on as the piece required.  Those big tunes will sweep you along, but much of it feels like "filler" if it is played without sufficient advocacy….

As an encore, they tossed off the second movement of Shostakovich's Cello Sonata, a virtuosic romp.

On balance, I enjoyed the concert despite some of the negative remarks above, but I was frequently comparing what I heard to the night before, and I think that Roman Rabinovich, Daniel Hope's piano collaborator, brought more to the table than Andreas Woyke did for this program.  Woyke was fully engaged, of course, but I thought Rabinovich produced the richer piano tone and the more individualistic keyboard participation.  Each program ended with a big standard repertory sonata – the Franck Violin Sonata last night and the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata this afternoon.  Each of these pieces is packed with good tunes and also with passages that can come across as busy work and filler if not played with sufficient imagination and shaping of the material by the performers.  Hope and Rabinovich seemed to be busy exercising a keen musical imagination in bringing the Franck to life, while Kleinhapl and Woyke seemed more neutral in their approach to the Rachmaninoff, a piece that if anything needs more advocacy than the Franck.  (The Rachmaninoff is an early work of the composer, and not as strong as the piano concerto written at about that time; the Franck is a mature late work of the Belgian master and can carry itself a bit more.)

Just some musing on my part. I hope Peoples' Symphony invites Kleinhapl back!  And I wish more people were taking advantage of these fabulous concerts at low prices in Town Hall… There were too many empty seats out there, and the place should have been packed.  Upcoming concerts from Peoples' Symphony:  East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Washington Irving High School on Saturday, January 8, and pianist Helene Grimaud at Town Hall on Sunday, January 30.

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