Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances hosted its annual Gift Concert presenting the latest (2015) winner of the Naumburg Award, named for its founder Walter Wehle Naumburg, who conceived the competition in 1925. These began as competitions for pianists and string players, but singers were added shortly thereafter in 1928. The latest change in scope took place in 1965 with the addition of a competition for chamber groups.
Last night’s concert featured the First Prize winner of the 2015 Naumburg Cello Competition, the young (born in 1990) Russian cellist Lev Sivkov. His accompanist was the almost-as-young (born in 1987) Hungarian pianist János Palojtay. Sivkov prepared a program whose first half was devoted solely to the “icons” of the repertoire, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. The intermission was then followed by an international perspective on twentieth-century modernism with works by Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, Armenian Aram Khachaturian, and British Benjamin Britten (composing for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich).
While there is no questioning that “iconic” status of Beethoven and Brahms, their respective sonatas that Sivkov selected for performance with both written when the composers were in their middle to late twenties, just beginning to establish their respective reputations. The Beethoven sonata, in the key of G minor, was the second of a set of two published as his Opus 5. These were his first sonatas for an instrument other than solo piano, meaning that they predate his violin sonatas, almost all of which are also early efforts. Furthermore, like the violin sonatas, the Opus 5 sonatas have decidedly elaborate piano parts, which may explain why the title page of the original Ataria publication (shown above) names them as sonatas for pianoforte and cello. (The violin sonatas were similarly described.)
The sonata is in three movements, beginning with an Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, which probably deceived listeners into thinking it would be a brief introduction to a sonata-allegro movement but emerged instead as a full-fledged fantasia, leaving listeners wondering when the sonata would get under way. The more conventional movement is the second Allegro molto più tosto presto, which is followed by a lighthearted Rondo in Allegro tempo. Beethoven took both Opus 5 sonatas on a tour that concluded in Berlin, where they were performed for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was an amateur cellist. Beethoven performed with court cellist Jean-Louis Duport.
Both Opus 5 sonatas reveal Beethoven looking back on his former master Joseph Haydn determined to outdo him in both wit and inventiveness, and Beethoven definitely scored high on both counts. At last night’s performance Palojtay had no trouble channeling Beethoven’s dominating spirit at the keyboard. (There was more than a little I-thought-this-was-supposed-to-be-a-cello-recital grumbling in the audience during the intermission.) However, the dominance of the piano never impeded his solid chemical bond with Sivkov, who listened attentively to Palojtay’s every turn and always responded on his own instrument with just the right level of distinctive character.
The Brahms sonata was also one of two, but in this case the two sonatas were composed at different stages of his life. The sonata Sivkov selected was the earlier, Opus 38 in E minor, which Brahms began around the time he moved to Vienna at the age of 29 in 1862. However, he did not complete the work until 1865. Rhetorically, this music is far darker than either of the Opus 5 sonatas; and Brahms clearly appreciated how cello sonorities suited that dark mood. Nevertheless, like Beethoven, Brahms was a virtuoso pianist; and there is nothing secondary about the piano part in his Opus 38 sonata. Still, the music is more of an intimate conversation between equals; and the bond established between Sivkov and Palojtay during their Beethoven performance became all the more compelling in their approach to Brahms, coming into full flower with a dynamite account of the Bach-inspired fugue Brahms wrote for the sonata’s final movement.
The major work on the second half of the program was the sonata that Britten composed for Rostropovich, premiered by the two of them at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival on July 7, 1961. This was the first of five major works that Britten would compose for Rostropovich, the others being a cello symphony and three solo suites. (Like Brahms, Britten had great admiration for Johann Sebastian Bach but never let inspiration devolve into imitation.) Once again the music emerged as a conversation between equals. In this case, however, Britten was more explicit about the matter, giving the first movement of his sonata the title “Dialogo.” Equally interesting was Britten’s use of the DSCH motif (the pitches that Dmitri Shostakovich frequently used to encode his own name in his music) in the final movement. This was Britten’s way of remembering that his appreciation of Rostropovich began when he heard the cellist give the British premiere of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto.
The Britten sonata was preceded by two shorter works, a two-movement sonatina by Kodály and a “sonata-fantasy” in C major that Khachaturian composed in 1974 near the end of his life in 1978. The Kodály selection was abundant with the composer’s spirit of ethnomusicology, with the piano providing the richest evocative sonorities, while the cello could indulge in a more “singing” melodic line. One again the sensitivity of balance shared by Sivkov and Palojtay was the primary factor that brought this music to life. On the other hand the improvisatory spirit of the Khachaturian solo was entirely in Sivkov’s wheelhouse; and, to maintain the metaphor, he steered his performance through all of its demanding virtuoso turns without any danger of capsizing.
Sivkov’s finale turned to another composer favored by Rostropovich, the Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Like Brahms, Myaskovsky composed two cello sonatas, early and late in life, respectively. Sivkov gave a lyrical account of the second movement of the later of these sonatas, Opus 81 in A minor. This made for a quiet conclusion to a lively evening, but it also tweaked a bit of curiosity over how that sonata would sound in its entirety.