Y2’s Scintillating Mendelssohn & Kapustin

WHR047Front

MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2. LISZT-SCHUMANN: Widmung. HENRYSSON: Black Run. On a Day Like This. KAPUSTIN: Elegy, Op. 96. Burlesque, Op. 97. Nearly Waltz, Op. 98. PIAZZOLLA: La Grand Tango / Y2: Yelian He, cel; Yasmin Rowe, pn / Willowhayne WHR047

Although this is pianist Yasmin Rowe’s second recording, her first being a solo recital, this is the first featuring her playing with cellist Yelian He as a duo under the name Y2. Ordinarily I don’t gravitate towards cello-piano recitals unless the repertoire is interesting, and fortunately, in this case it is. In addition to the well-worn second cello sonata of Mendelssohn and another oldie, Liszt’s piano transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung, we also get two pieces by Svante Henrysson, including the first recording of On a Day Like This for solo cello, plus three pieces by Nikolai Kapustin and one by Astor Piazzolla.

Like most modern-day chamber groups, regardless of size, Y2 plays the classics with a taut style and driving forward momentum. Gone are all traces of the old school, where occasional moments of relaxation were introduced to give nuance to the music. The well-versed listener will find little here that resembles the playing of even such musically “clean” old-timers as Emanuel Feuermann, but in its place one will hear an exciting, linear reading of the score with a focus on the work’s structure. And make no mistake, both He and Rowe dive into this music with great relish and enthusiasm. The first-movement “Allegro assai vivace” may indeed have very little assai but plenty of vivace. The duo does not neglect the written dynamics markings; in that respect, they shade the music when called for; but the dynamic forward pulse of their playing is what impresses and stays with one long after the last note has sounded. There is also a delicious feeling of pointillistic delicacy in their reading of the “Allegretto scherzando,” with Rowe rhythmically nudging He along even in the quietest passages. Her playing reminds me in many ways of that of American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s longtime recital partner, a human dynamo whose no-holds-barred style keeps listeners on their toes.

The rolling arpeggios that open the third movement are played with great equipoise by Rowe, and when He enters his playing has the requisite limpid tone despite a slightly tauter interpretation of the lyric line. The duo slams into the last movement with such brio that it even took me by surprise, making haste but not waste as they scamper through the score to the finish line.

Much to my surprise, there was a fair amount of rubato in Rowe’s solo piano reading of Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s song, Widmung. This is fully appropriate to the music, as Schumann was probably one of the most romantic of the Romantic composers, and in her playing Rowe does not slough off the difficult passages in Liszt’s score. To compensate, cellist He then gives us two solo cello works by Svante Henryson (1963 – ) who originally started out as a bassist, in fact playing as principal bass in the Oslo Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons, before turning to the cello. He then joined the rock band Yngwie Malmsteen as a bass guitarist, later working as a session musician for Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello and many others. This is the world premiere recording of his solo cello piece On a Day Like This. Before this, however, is his cello version of the bluegrass favorite Black Run, played in a style that would do the Turtle Island String Quartet proud. A number of startling techniques are used, including what sounds like hitting the strings with the wood part of the bow. He is simply fabulous here, showing off his technique while still remaining musical. By contrast, On a Day Like This is a slow number, played pizzicato, with a few bent notes thrown in for fun. The music’s slow pace is matched by the simplicity of the score itself; there’s a lot of “space” between notes, and the development is fairly minimal and easy for a lay listener to follow. As the piece goes along, however, it picks up a sort of rock beat and requires some high “whistle” tones from the cellist.

The dense structures of Kapustin, on the other hand, rely on a jazz rhythm and harmonic base. Y2 is just a little stiff in their “feel” for jazz rhythm, but they at least try to loosen up and give these three pieces the swagger they call for. In Elegy, the simplest and least dense of them, I found Ye’s cello slides a bit more rhythmically loose than Rowe’s piano accompaniment, although in the midst of the piece Rowe does try to simulate a jazz pulse, and does so with great credibility. (Those who expore my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, will find an entire chapter devoted to Kapustin.) The Burlesque, new to me, takes a highly syncopated, quick 4 beat and transforms it through strange permutations, including an almost ragtime-like section for the piano that dominates the second half for some time. Interestingly, the cello almost sounds like a commentator in this piece rather than a full participant in the development. Nearly Waltz, one of Kapustin’s better-known pieces, is in 7/4, thus almost but not quite rounding off to a waltz tempo. Y2 plays it with great brio.

We end our musical journey with Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, and I really enjoyed Y2’s no-holds-barred approach. Indeed, they almost make it sound like a jazz tango, really emphasizing the syncopations, which I found utterly delightful. My only caveat was that it went on for too long, but this is Piazzolla’s fault. Y2 certainly keeps the energy level up to the very end!

This is a very interesting and highly energetic first release by Y2, one that should intrigue all fans of cello-piano music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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