Where’s the fire? Rushed CMS program leaves French cello sonatas short of breadth

Fri Jan 23, 2015 at 9:05 pm

Cellist Gary Hoffman performed French cello sonatas with pianist David Selig Thursday night at the Rose Studio.

In live performance, there is almost always a moment of quiet tension. Often it dissipates in the blink of an eye, at the end of a guns-blazing finale (as in, for instance, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto), but very often it lingers in the air, creating a charged silence (think of Schubert’s Winterreise). An overeager audience member, breaking the spell, can make it feel as though we’ve been robbed of a proper ending, interrupting a subtle but still integral part of the performance.

Equally important is the electricity right before a piece begins. This moment allows both audience and performers the space to prepare, to collect their focus, to be “in the zone.” If you’ve ever heard a cell phone go off just as the conductor lifts the baton, you’ve probably also seen him lower it again, pause, and reset, like a golfer heckled at the tee.

Time and again during Thursday evening’s Chamber Music Society offering, that preparation was missing. Cellist Gary Hoffman and pianist David Selig presented a program of French cello sonatas in the Rose Studio, and Hoffman (who, as the player furthest downstage, is responsible for cueing entrances) rushed into almost everything he started. At least once, he appeared to turn the page to the next movement and cue Selig almost in the same breath.

This unfortunate habit had the effect of sending opening statements over the listener’s head. Albéric Magnard’s Sonata in A major begins with beautifully arching phrases, which Hoffman seemed to walk through after having pounced on the first note. Despite lively, colorful playing from both musicians, the first movement’s thesis was not clearly stated, and so everything that followed was lost, leaving no sense of origin or destination.

The Magnard, though, showed character and color, and was an improvement over the Saint-Saëns C-minor sonata, which began the evening. The same rushed quality was apparent in the first and last movements, and both players were affected. Selig’s playing became muddy while Hoffman struggled to find his best, woolen tone; the conclusion came out of nowhere. The Andante, in which the piano begins alone was more natural, though the balance was still off, Selig’s marcato chords near the end overpowering Hoffman’s pizzicati.

Léon Boëllmann’s Sonata in A minor, thankfully, represented a complete change. Entering alone on the downbeat, Hoffman took more time to prepare, and the result was immediate and significant. There was a sudden authority in his playing, a hot-blooded temperament creating a smoldering fire, while Selig demonstrated nimble but fierce virtuosity on the piano.

Selig’s introduction to the Andante was glowing; his harp-like strumming was his most colorful playing of the night, and when Hoffman entered he finally showed that sighing sound that we expect to hear in Romantic cello repertoire, a tearful crooning that constantly threatens to break into a wail. More impassioned playing came in the finale, suffused with an impish spirit that persisted right up to the piece’s thrilling close.

Two Fauré encores ended the concert with tender sentiment. First was the Andante from his second sonata, played modestly–uncomplicated, somber, but not morose. Last of all was the nostalgic Sicilienne, one of the great cello chestnuts, given here with grace and sensitivity.

Hoffman announced both the encores, which is rare enough these days, but he also made brief remarks about his and Selig’s emotional connection to the pieces. This helped to give us a hint of personality, which, after all, is part of the point of the encore, but it also encouraged him to take a little more time in that all-important preparatory moment.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s next concert will be a program of new music in the Kaplan Penthouse at the Rose building on January 29. chambermusicsociety.org

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