Leighton Library Theatre was well filled on 26th January to hear the exciting duo Richard Jenkinson (cello) and Benjamin Frith (piano). They brought with them an adventurous, programme of Russian music that brought out the passion and melody, strength and melancholy of the Russian temperament. Had the snow still been lying outside we would all have galloped home by troika …
They began with Suite Italienne by Igor Stravinsky, a transcription of part of his ballet Pulcinella. Mr Jenkinson introduced it to us as being both virtuosic and melodic – a combination Russian composers seem to enjoy. And it’s hard not to espouse one at the expense of the other. Magical musical tricks passed from one instrument to the other and back again. The melodies – derived from peasant music – rippled back and forth too. In the ‘Tarantella’ the instruments chased each other like mice, then the pursuit became weightier, ending in a pounding final cadence. The following ‘Minuetto’ was sonorous, full of discords and bleak jokes; a donkey brayed, echoing a figure in the first movement; the tone was dark. Out of this the finale shot like a firework, the melody as overwhelmingly sweet as bonfire toffee, punctuated with technical wizardry, strange harmonies and discords.
Follow that … how? Well, with Dimitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor (Op. 40). The composer wrote this while he was have difficulties both within his marriage and with the Communist state. He was not the only Russian composer for whom this led to dichotomies, the music veered between lyricism and bitterness, old-fashioned peasant joy and an urban sardonicism. There was nostalgia aplenty here. And fear of the future.
The piece began sweetly, built effervescently, became quiet and languid. Next staccato from the piano and pizzicato from the cello conveyed real menace. Heavy feet ascended a dark stair after midnight. There was the knock on the door which is never good news. The cello gave octave leaps of terror. The menace was sustained in the second movement, while a fragile happiness teetered on a vibrating string. The cello throbbed with a profound theme low in its range. A clock ticked. Sleep at last overcame the terrors of the night. In the next movement a busy morning had begun. Errands were run. Women gossiped when they met – ‘did you hear?’- and hurried on. In the ‘Largo’ a bell tolled, a soul yearned. Chords from the piano became momentarily brighter before the cello re-established the prevailing, slavic melancholy. In the final ‘Allegretto’ the men linked arms for a Cossack dance. But no-one could dance to what followed. This was the Devil’s music. A desperate kind of revelry continued despite the certainty of hell waiting. It began quietly, so the Devil couldn’t hear – but finally the night became filled with frenzied joy.
The second half of the programme began with a tiny piece by Alexander Glazunov: Chant du Ménestrel in F# minor (Op 71). It takes almost longer to introduce than to play! This was luscious, richly romantic music – a tiny box of the most luxurious chocolates.
The rest of the programme comprised Sergei Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor (Op 19). Great melodies were, once again, a feature. The music was somehow bright and dark at the same time – here was something that was almost a lullaby, but perhaps for a dead child. Here were echoes of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (remember the movie Brief Encounter). But Rachmaninov has an apparently endless source of wonderful melodies.Here was another. Jenkinson conjured marvellous things from the bottom of the cello’s range, then notes from the very top of its register. Now another gorgeous theme was both unexpected and completely inescapable. Here was yet another – higher and yet lovelier than those that had come before. Layer upon layer of melody. The piano and cello called each to other; the two instruments caressing, exhorting, climactic. The final theme was insistent, gorgeous, repeated, handed from one instrument to the other. And from this heightened place one final, stupendous pyrotechnic flourish erupted and was gone.
Our calls for an encore were enthusiastic – and successful. This was a cunning choice; it stayed within the Russian theme and incorporated Benjamin Britten (the centenary of whose birth it is this year: expect much Britten in 2013 – hooray!). It was the entirely pizzicato ‘Serenata: Allegretto’ from Britten’s Cello Suites. This was the fifth of nine suites, the first performance of each having been given by Mstislav Rostropovich . Mr Jenkinson coaxed the most astonishing guitar-like sounds from his cello while Mr Frith surrounded these with a tiny, complex, sympathetic piano part. Strumming a cello? Yes indeed. And counting furiously (if silently!). A true oddity and a delightful digestif to a thrilling concert.