FringeReview UK 2018
Cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Glen Capra play a Russian programme of Josif Genishta and Prokofiev Cello Sonatas, with encores by Rachmaninov and Arensky.
Cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Glen Capra are fast becoming a powerful duo – Capra plays with violists and others too, and is a soloist in his own right. Their projection is big-boned, muscular and – as it has to be – capable of fined-down expressivity. Spooner’s is a sensitive register of big themes, and Capra’s modernist-inflected repertoire revels in the Romantic in the way some modernists don’t
Here the Russian Cello and Piano repertoire was represented at is widest extent: by an obscure post-Beethovenian work and 1949 masterpiece. And by two remarkable encores.
No I’d not heard of Josif Genishta (1795-1853) either. It’s worth pausing for a moment. Genishta’s is in the time of say Glinka (1804-57) ‘father of Russian music’; there’s little music around and this composer writes what might be the first Russian cello works – he’s likely to have been a cellist. There’s three cello sonatas. There’s an Op 6, 7 and 13, and three Nocturnes Op10, all ranging from 1834-40. So around the time of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz.
Genishta’s No. 2 Op 7 (I think) is a beefy Beethoven-inspired work, full of flecks, mercurial repeats and developments Beethoven would have recognized. The language especially in the finale is slightly more Romantic, but there’s the heft of big contrapuntal gestures, a brief respite and a really worked-out finale that rolls and doesn’t seem to stop: it’s as propulsive as Beethoven too, thewed with cross-rhythms and jagged developments. It’s difficult to get a handle on this work, but think lateish Beethoven if you know his cello sonatas, and it’s that kind of palate. A really impressive discovery here, and a half century before any other Russian string sonatas of any note. Genishta wrote sonatas for the violin and Viola as well as piano solo sonatas. More please.
The masterpiece was Prokofiev’s late Cello Sonata in C Op 119. He’d survived the Zhadnov decree of January 1948, the one which forced Soviet composer to publicly repent of their mysterious ‘formalism’ and write whistling symphonies as dramatist David Pownall put it. Indeed Zhadnov was mysteriously dead himself by poisoning on August 31st that year, Stalin perhaps deeming him too zealous.
Even this work as Sviatoslav Richter recalled (he gave the premiere with Rostropovich) the work had to played before two plenary committees to see if it was ‘a new masterpiece or, conversely, a piece that was ‘hostile to the spirit of the people’ ‘ before it got the thumbs-up the next year.
So it’s a more subdued yet still gloriously tuneful Prokofiev we get here, particularly in the first two movements. There’s a heart-easing song theme opening Andante grave in the cello not devoid of melancholy in its gentle andante unfolding, and rocking rhythm. It dominates the unhurried first movement’s shy grandeur, just as the faintly spikier, more sprite-like second movement (still only moderato though) comes as a kind of inversion from what we expect. It’s mercurial, memorable and full of glints and half-lights, almost Haydn-seek in the way its tunes leap out at you. The finale’s more bustling at an allegro ma non troppo but at least here I didn’t quite feel Prokofiev could leave any cross-rhythm alone and melodies were a little squashed. Soviet ‘purposeful optimism’ perhaps.
There were two unexpected encores. Rachmaninov’s early wonderfully un-pc Exotic Dance, full of eastern harmonies as he saw them, never having been that far south east in Russian territories let alone broad. It’s a fine piece though. Later he wrote more famous cello works including the monumental sonata. Here he’s delicate, less heroic than we remember. It’s the time of his three operas – yes early n he wrote three one-acters.
And just as we thought it was all over… Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was a brilliant academic composer and notorious drunk, of whom his old teacher Rimsky-Korsakov said he’d be soon forgotten. Yet he crafted out of forty-five chaotic years some masterly works, and this ‘Joke’ is a buzzing piece, where the cello for the first time flies skittishly over the strings and becomes its own commentator, almost. It’s alive a kind of hushed presto, full of wit and vitality. A real addition.
What a programme, and how adventurous this duo are. they’ve just given a performance of Barry Mill’s Five Cello Pieces (2015) written fro them, at St Luke’s. This is first rank cello and piano playing and we’re incredibly lucky these artists live amongst us.