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Union: Lynn Harrell and Yefim Bronfman

Debussy: Sonata No.1 in D Minor
Beethoven: Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op.102, No. 2
Beethoven: Variations in F Major on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen
Mendelssohn: Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58

Lynn Harrell, cello
Yefim Bronfman, piano


Cellist Lynn Harrell and pianist Yefim Bronfman presented a duo recital Friday evening at the Union Theater that was as close to perfect as I can imagine a concert being. Both are masters of their instrument, Harrell now enjoying the fruits of a long and continuously illustrious career, Bronfman still a relatively young virtuoso (37 in a couple months) who is startlingly good and will surely go on to real greatness.

The program was especially seductive for me, as it opened with what may be my favorite two works for cello and piano. Debussy's Sonata No.1 in D Minor (1915) is among many other things a work of great technical difficulty, especially in the matter of the two players being perfectly together in the course of its quickly varying tempi and rhythms. Really good ensemble is one of chamber music's most elusive goals, though there wasn't the slightest evidence of a single bump in this entire concert. Which of two great instruments Harrell uses we heard, I can't say, but his playing of the Debussy brought from it the richest possible full sound and the most delicate imaginable pianissimos, Bronfman perfectly matching these dynamic and tonal ranges. Then too, there's the piece itself, but to know much more about that, one simply has to hear it.

"Late Beethoven" is a phrase that strikes terror in the hearts of players (they know what they're about to do is at or over the limit of the possible) even as it lowers the critical acumen of listeners, who may be tempted by it to listen more for Beethoven's greatness than his actual music. The real meaning of the phrase, I think, is that at around the time of the Sonata No.5 in D Major, Op.102, No.2, the composer's music started to go ballistic. Without ever losing its basis in classical ideals, Beethoven's late works go well beyond all previous notions of what music and musicians might do technically and expressively. This last of his five sonatas for cello and piano achieves an extraordinary synthesis of the two instruments, more fully partnering them here than in any other work for the combination. As we came to the end of the central adagio, so searching, so probing and introspective, my thought was, "What a miracle!" This exclamation was as much for the playing as for the music itself.

Beethoven's "Variations in F Major on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" is far more serious a work than its jaunty Mozart tune (from the Magic Flute) would suggest. As usual with Beethoven, the variations greatly extend the original ideas. Here too the playing was glorious.

Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58 is of such amazing technical difficulty that one maybe doesn't quite believe one's ears. Over the course of its 25 minutes, which give new meaning to the idea of fast playing, there are many outbursts of intensely appealing lyricism, and not just in its lovely slow movement where we would expect it.

As an encore offering, Harrell and Bronfman played the slow movement of Rachmaninov's Sonata, Op. 19. Well, what can I say? Though there were the expected shouts of "Bravo!," this was a curious instance of a time when the capacity audience should have leapt to its feet and didn't, for some reason. It really doesn't get any better than this.

Isthmus, February, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson

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