Friday (18 October 2013)
Cello and Piano Recital by
GIOVANNI SOLLIMA &
On paper, this recital appeared like a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated pieces, from Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland to living Ukrainian jazzman Nikolai Kapustin, with Beethoven, Webern and a pair of Sicilians filling in between. The reality was a sizeable audience, one larger than previous evenings, presenting themselves to witness one of the most stunning displays of cellism, if there were such a word.
The Palermo-born Giovanni Sollima, like Yo-Yo Ma, is a cellist who defies convention and tradition. Although classically trained, he refuses to be pigeon-holed as a classical cellist. Improviser, innovator, inventor and iconoclast seem like more appropriate epithets. Informally attired, sporting eye-glasses and a five o’clock shadow, one would sooner see him in a jazz club or smoky dive rather than a concert hall. His collaborator pianist Giuseppe Andaloro, almost 20 years younger, would be his more-than-able side-kick for the evening, partner rather than accompanist. The first thing they did was to place music scores inside the Steinway grand in preparation of their first piece, an unusual setting of John Dowland’s well-known song Come Again.
Whoever thought this Elizabethan song could be scored for cello and prepared piano? The piano took on an otherworldly timbre, light metallic twangs interspersed with the gently flickering sound of felt-lined hammers striking paper as Andaloro sensitively accompanied Sollima. The cellist, for his part, skilfully improvised with each strophe and variation in what must be an imagination of jazz in the 1590s. Very quirky but highly original.
The most conventional part of the programme was Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A major (Op.69) and here the classical credentials of both performers in traditional repertoire were on show. Sollima’s opening unaccompanied solo in the 1st movement had a plaintive quality, and the tone on his 1697 Ruggeri cello was firm and robust. Andaloro’s contribution as an equal partner in chords and running passages was alert and responsive, continuing into the Scherzo with its tricky syncopations and abrupt rhythmic changes.
The duo then sneaked in Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces (Op.11), very short atonal aphorisms, as a jarring contrast, just before the third and fourth movements of the Beethoven. Besides making one sit up and listen, it was their way of juxtaposing the two Viennese schools in a single sitting. I can’t say it worked wonders for me, but it certainly fooled the audience and hall technicians, who were still waiting for the Webern after the Beethoven (a very good performance, as a matter of fact) had concluded with an emphatic A major chord. The house lights did come on eventually to reveal some red faces.
I had first encountered the name of Giovanni Sollima several years ago when cellist Qin Li-Wei performed his Alone for solo cello as a substantial encore after a concerto performance with The Philharmonic Winds. I remembered liking the piece very much; tonal, accessible and expressive in a brief but profound way, and wondered what else he had written. As it is, there are two musical Sollimas, Giovanni and his late father Eliodoro, composition professor and sometime head of the Conservatory in Palermo. Both Sollima Jr. and Andaloro were among his many students.
The Cello Sonata (1948) by Sollima Sr.(left), despite its date of composition, was a very listenable post-romantic work in three movements. The opening Lento recitativo and ensuing Allegro vivo were based on a motif of a descending fifth, and due to its monothematic nature, never let one forget its musings. This was followed by an elegiac slow movement, full of emotion displayed by Sollima, an Italian Yo-Yo Ma who himself is quite a sight to behold. He and his cello are one and the same spirit, and the sonorities he coaxes from it – full-bodied and deeply breathed - is quite unlike any other. A short but furious Perpetuum mobile closed the work on a brilliant high. Sollima Jr. appears to be a chip off the old block, as demonstrated in his Tema III for his film score Il bell’Antonio, another emotionally charge piece which began quietly and built to an ecstatic high.
The three pieces by Kapustin that closed the concert played like three movement suite with the fast-slow-fast schema. The Nearly Waltz (Op.98) charmed with its insouciant lilt, while the Elegie (Op.96) and Burlesque (Op.97) provided ample opportunity to improvise, and here is the essence of jazz relived. Although the score is provided, it is merely a blueprint for what is heard onstage. Sollima’s rhapsody sounded so free, as if the piece were composed on the spot. Having heard several versions of this movement on YouTube, none matched his spontaneity and expressiveness. At one point, he inserts his bow in between the strings and allows it to rock roughshod over the strings like some demented spiccato. One doubts whether this is indicated in the score, so I guess this is something which Sollima invented de novo.
Rapturous applause meant he and Andaloro had to offer an encore, and this was a movement from his Bestiary of Leonardo da Vinci, another enjoyable and energetic piece, one inspired by waves. The concert was one journey of discovery, which will not be forgotten for some time to come.