Every year since 1988 San Francisco Performances (SFP) has a tradition of presenting the winner of the annual Walter W. Naumburg Competition in recital. The competition was initiated in 1925 by New York banker Walter Wehle Naumburg as a “general-purpose auditioning process” for young pianists and violinists. Since then the scope of the competition has expanded to include flute, clarinet, classical guitar, viola, cello, and vocalists. 2015 was the year of an international cello competition; and the winner was 25-year-old Lev Sivkov, born in Novosibirsk, Russia.
For his San Francisco debut recital, Sivkov will be accompanied by Hungarian pianist János Palojtay. They have prepared a program with two diverse perspectives on twentieth-century modernism. The earliest of these will be Zoltán Kodály’s sonatina, composed in 1909. At the other extreme will be the Opus 65 sonata that Benjamin Britten composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, which the two of them premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in July of 1961. Between these two pieces, Sivkov will play the sonata-fantasia for solo cello, which Aram Khachaturian composed late in his life in 1974.
This attention to modernism will be complemented by contrasting approaches to Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. The program will begin with the second of the two cello sonatas (in the key of G minor) that Beethoven wrote in 1796 and had published as his Opus 5. As is the case with Beethoven’s violin sonatas, this is music in which the composer has given as much attention to the piano as to the cello; and, because the sonata is in a minor key (one which was a favorite of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Beethoven clearly wished to show that he could be as adventurous as Mozart in that mode.
This will be followed by another minor key sonata, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 38, composed between 1862 and 1865 and the first of his two cello sonatas. Perhaps in the spirit of following Beethoven’s lead, Brahms published this as “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” Like Beethoven, Brahms certainly did not stint on the piano part; but the rhetoric is a far cry from the “First Viennese School” approaches to stylization that Beethoven had learned from Joseph Haydn and was just beginning to take in new directions.
Brahms actually dedicated this sonata to an amateur cellist, Josef Gänsbacher; and Henry Drinker’s book about Brahms’ chamber music has a story so good that it deserves to be true, even if it isn’t. Apparently, Brahms accompanied Gänsbacher in this sonata at a private performance for friends. Brahms went at the piano part with his usual full-throttle vigor, causing Gänsbacher to complain that he could not hear his own cello. Brahms’ replied, “Lucky for you;” and kept going full steam.
The Naumburg recital is free to SFP subscribers and donors who make advance reservations. These may be arranged by calling 415-392-2545 between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. between Monday and Friday. The remaining tickets are then sold to the general public for $40. The recital will take place at Herbst Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 20. Further information, including a hyperlink for purchasing tickets, is available from the event page on the San Francisco Performances Web site. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.