Yamagami and Longworth @ WMCT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, November 20, 2008, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Kaori Yamagami was fortunate this afternoon to have Peter Longworth as her partner on the piano. He has a light touch, a vital sense of rhythm, and a down to earth approach that grounds Ms. Yamagami’s volatile sensitivity. He is unassumingly expressive, never gilds the lily, doesn’t hold back but offers his support to the challenges she meets. It was apparent they worked well together from the opening bars of Beethoven’s 4th Cello “Sonata in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1”, as Longworth’s delicate melodic figures outlined the depths of the cello’s fluid outpourings. By the ‘Adagio’, those depths, darkened by a sense of tragedy, expanded into a contrapuntal expression of playfulness. Towards the closing bars of the Finale, both partners seemed to be having fun.

Ms. Yamagami opened the concert boldly with Ligeti’s “Sonata for Solo Cello.” Composed in Hungary in 1953, it was suppressed after a single radio broadcast, and had to wait until 1983 for its concert debut, and another seven years for its first recording. Since that time, the “Sonata” has become increasingly popular, working its way into the standard repertoire and even becoming a qualifying test for the 2005 Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris, at which event Ms. Yamagami won the prize for most promising musician.

The deep, sliding drone of the opening motif (repeated throughout the piece), sets a mood of passion almost paralyzed by its own intensity. The elegiac beauty of the first movement alternates with the high speed double and triple stops of the second movement that conjures a mood of hysteria barely held in check by repeated quotations of the dominant motif of the first movement. This is a gorgeous, compelling work, and Ms. Yamaguchi demonstrates her emotional understanding and impressive control as she negotiates steep, hairpin shifts in rhythm and tempo.

The afternoon developed the mood of solemn lamentation so native to the cello’s voice with the world premier of Larysa Kuzmenko’s four movement work, “Fantasy for Solo Violoncello,” commissioned for Ms. Yamagami by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. The first movement, dedicated to the late cellist Christine Bogyo, so extenuated the anguish of a wounded soul that it drew Ms. Yamaguchi’s facial expression downward into a Kabuki grimace.  The ideas in the ‘Allegro Vivace’ pursued each other like a swirl of insects in dialogue with itself. The ‘Adagio’ is delicate, fragile, beseeching and peaceful before it descends into discord and lamentation. The concluding ‘Allegro’ returns the mood to the fleet, airy dialogue introduced in the second movement.

One had to smile at the lightness and melodic charm of the mid-period Beethoven’s “Variations” on the duet concerning true love that Papageno and Papagena sing in the first act of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The interplay of parts is pure enjoyment, expressing the cheer of a world in good order. Following a descent into a subterranean minor, Mr. Longworth’s impeccable sense of time leads the way back to the sparkling sunshine.

The duo returned us to the shadowy realm with “Meditation Hebraique,” the fervent, liturgical response to the Torah that Ernst Bloch composed for cellist Pablo Casals in 1924.  The cello’s deep cantorial invocation floats over the piano’s rolling bass ostinato. The music of intense questioning that surrenders to prayer seemed to move Ms. Yamagami close to tears, while the leonine Mr. Longworth maintained his stalwart air.

Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” that closed the concert was delightful, full of sunshine and subtlety, lyricism and excitement. This 1932 work, drawn from the composer’s 1920 Ballet, “Pulcinella” is based on a score by the 18th century master Pergolesi, and has become a staple of the cello bravura repertoire. Ms. Yamagami responded to the unusual demands of this witty, dislocated work with zest, grace, and humour.

Upon reflection, one must appreciate the broad vision of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for sponsoring such an enriched program.

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