Fort Worth — While The Cliburn is the home of all things piano, their concert series presents other instrumentalists. So it was on Thursday evening when The Cliburn at the Kimbell series presented cellist Camille Thomas with pianist Roman Rabinovich. While Thomas did an exceptional job overall, Rabinovich was the most impressive — perhaps it was something in the Cliburn air.
At the Kimbell Art Museum, the pair opened with Beethoven’s Seven Variations in E-flat major for cello and piano. Beethoven wrote three sets of variations for cello and piano, two of which were based on themes from Mozart. This set is based on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” from the first act of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Beethoven loved to write variations and Mozart’s simple and folk-like theme is perfect for this use. Also, this piece is a very good opener because it starts with a single isolated and assertive E-flat major chord, which acted as an introductory gesture to the program as well as the piece. Intended or not, “hello!” is what immediately comes to mind.
Rabinovich immediately established his bonafides not only as a pianist but as a superb collaborative pianist as well. He could grace any Cliburn event. On the other hand, Thomas got off to a rocky start. For one thing, it sounded like her bow needed some rosin as a number of notes slipped and some low passages sounded scratchy. These peccadillos continued to appear sporadically throughout the first half of the concert.
As to the Beethoven, there was no doubting her passion, virtuosity and musicianship — but this early work by Beethoven, which was designed for salon purposes, could have benefited from a little less aggressive and late-Romantic approach.
The first half ended with Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38. Thomas proudly introduced us to her new Stradivarius cello, furnished courtesy of the Nippon Music Foundation, and the Brahms showed off its abilities much better than the Beethoven. Her work on the C string was remarkable for its deep resonance. In general, her performance was excellent and musically adept, although she tended to exaggerate the rubato and achieved top volume way too soon. To her credit, she used a wide range of vibrato to color the music in a most effective manner.
The second movement was the highlight. The pair achieved a marvelous Brahmsian waltz feel that could have easily been included as an instrumental addition to his Op. 52, Liebeslieder Walzer. Rabinovich was enjoyable to watch as he displayed some showy, but effective, unusual fingerings.
If the second movement was a pure dose of Brahms, Thomas’ approach to the last movement was more like a spoonful of Bartók. She even delivered a bow slap and bottomed out an occasional string.
The second half opened with something quite extraordinary. Thomas announced that they would start with a section for cello and piano extracted from Olivier Messiaen’s remarkable Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). He wrote it in 1941 while he was incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. It is a collection of eight related pieces that he wrote for the instruments that were available: violin, clarinet, cello and piano.
The fifth movement, Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus) is for cello and piano, which the composer adapted from an earlier work for six Ondes Martenots (an early electronic keyboard instrument that created a trebling and wavy sound similar to that of a theremin). Thus, in this incarnation, as a series of plodding solemn chords in the piano under an extended mournful solo cello line, the whole concept is completely different.
This rarely heard piece was the highlight of the concert. Thomas asked that the audience refrain from applause afterwards so that it could act as an introduction to the Franck sonata that followed. While this sounded like a quirky request, the effect was magical.
Franck’s Sonata in A major was originally written for violin and piano, and still works best in that incarnation as far as I am concerned, but its magnificence has tempted other instruments to adopt it for their own. Of these transcriptions, the version for cello is the most effective. But it has even been played in arrangements for the tuba, saxophone, organ and two pianos — among a variety of others.
Thomas was superb but Rabinovich stole the show. Of course, this is hardly fair considering that the piano part is notoriously difficult. It presents a formidable challenge to even the greatest pianists. Thus, the performance of the piano part is of special interest every time the sonata is played.
Perhaps this is a specialty of Rabinovich’s, but his performance was absolutely stunning and the best of a myriad of performances of this much-loved sonata that I have heard in a lifetime of concert-going. His technical mastery was remarkable, but his ease of playing it was even more astonishing. Further, I heard things played so differently throughout, such his joyful staccato attack to the treble chords on the last beat of three measures near the end, that he sent me scurrying back to pore over the score.