Elena Gaponenko’s Astonishing Dual Talents

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OPUS EIGHT / LYADOV: 2 Intermezzi. MEDTNER: 2 Fairy Tales. LYAPUNOV: Nocturne. SCRIABIN: 12 Études / Elena Gaponenko, pn / SIBELIUS: Variations for Cello Solo. LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello. KODÁLY: Sonata for Solo Cello / Elena Gaponenko, cel / Oehms Classics OC 1884

Musicians who can play two different instruments competently are few but not as rare as you might be led to believe. Perhaps the most famous is Julia Fischer, an outstanding German violinist who also plays the piano…but her piano playing, though technically adroit, is cold and unfeeling.

This is not the case with Elena Gaponenko. The Russian-born artist has been playing both pano and cello since the age of four, although how on earth a four-year-old could handle an instrument as large as a cello is beyond me. Nonetheless, her performances of music by Lyadov, Medtner, Lyapunov and Scriabin on the keyboard goes beyond mere facility; this is the work of a mature artist, and one who digs into the keyboard like a tigress. She doesn’t coax the music out of her keyboard, she tears it out. Never in my life have I heard Medtner’s 2 Fairy Tales played as anything but light music; in Gaponenko’s hands, these are fairy tales by the brothers Grimm, verging on menace as well as high drama. She absolutely revels in his chromatic world, downshifting as if she were driving a Mercury Cougar to the gates of Hell. The music swirls and eddies, particularly in the second of these, like the roiling of a vicious storm on the horizon. And even the lyrical Nocturne of Lyapunov has an undercurrent of muscle about it, as the Chopin Nocturnes did when played by Nadia Reisenberg. The music coerces but is not soft and mushy.

In the liner notes for this 2-CD set, Gaponenko reveals that she believes “The number eight as a symbol has something magical and attractive for me, like a Mobius strip or the infinity sign. It is almost mystical that this selection of works (representing an entire layer of Russian music) belongs to one epoch, is composed for one instrument (piano solo) and can be bundled together under the opus number 8. Although different cultural tendencies are reflected here, the musical thinking of these pieces is based on the heterogeneous but unmistakably Russian fundamental intonation. This music, mostly unknown to Western listeners (perhaps with the exception of Scriabin) is gripping in its visions and, at the same time, moving in its intimacy and authenticity.” Thus it is interesting that, in the cello CD, Kodály’s Cello Sonata is also Op. 8.

As it turns out, Scriabin’s Op. 8 Études is the one group I didn’t have in my collection, thus I was glad to hear them in her interpretations. Still written during his Chopin-influenced period, Gaponenko removes much of the Chopin delicacy by playing them with a clarity and lack of self-indulgent Romanticism. In this sense, they reminded me of the Sonatas as played by Vladimir Horowitz (some of his very few good recordings) and Garrick Ohlsson. Her approach is wholly appropriate; except for the Preludes, I really don’t enjoy hearing Scriabin too Romanticized anyway. He may have loved Chopin, but he was still Russian, and little of his other music revels in soft textures played softly. There always seems to be a restlessness just under the surface of his music that cries out for release, and Gaponenko releases that mood in her performances.

I admit to being surprised by Gaponenko’s cello CD—not that I didn’t think she’d be good, but I wasn’t prepared for her depth of sound. This is real old-fashioned cello playing of the sort that reminds one of such names as Starker or Rostropovich. Even Jacqualine du Pré of sainted memory, whose playing I adore, had a lighter, sweeter cello tone than this. But then again, this is a very Russian kind of sound, so I probably should have expected it.

The Sibelius Variations for Solo Cello, a work unfamiliar to me, is full of interesting passages, each of which Gaponenko plays with both facility and emotion. Unlike many of today’s cellists, her tone is solid as a rock from top to bottom—her high range, amazingly, has the same depth of tone as her lower—and one is scarcely aware of the bow hitting the strings. It almost sounds as if the cello is playing itself.

If the Sibelius was an interesting discovery, the Ligeti sonata was a revelation. Despite some pitch-bending on certain notes, the Hungarian composer wrote here in a far more tonal and lyrical vein than anything else I had ever heard by him, and Gaponenko takes full advantage of this rare lyric streak to infuse the music with emotion. I noted here that, although she does not use straight tone, she plays with such a light, tight vibrato that it almost sounds like straight tone, except that she makes it much fuller.

It was interesting for me to near this performance of the Kodály sonata after having just reviewed István Várdai’s excellent recording on Brilliant Classics. Gaponenko takes the outer movements somewhat slower; she still has intensity, but it’s not quite the same as Várdai’s slashing, burning approach. On the other hand, I really liked her deep, rich tone in this music, so full of feeling. I’d say that, in the end, it comes out a wash.

This is a remarkable pair of records. Perhaps someday Gaponenko will make a recording on which she accompanies her own cello playing at the piano!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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