Armenian cellist displays stellar artistry at Gardner Museum

October 8, 2012 at 10:19 am

By Keith Powers

Narek Hakhnazaryan performed a recital Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum.

With a display of formidable technique and musical acumen, young cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan made a strong impression as a performer to watch Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum. 

He offered a wide-ranging program: standard repertory like Franck’s A Major Sonata, Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne and Pezzo Capriccioso, juxtaposed with challenging modern works like the Ligeti solo Cello Sonata and The Jew: Life and Death by Russian composer Mikhail Bronner. A sold-out Calderwood Hall witnessed Hakhnazaryan, who was ably supported by pianist Noreen Polera; one suspects that years from now many more will claim “to have been there then.”

The 24-year-old Armenian was the gold medal winner at last year’s Tchaikovsky competition. Such an achievement nearly always guarantees solid technique, but does not always guarantee musical insight.

A reading of the familiar Franck Violin Sonata arranged for cello was the first major work of the afternoon. Both players seem to delight in the attack, especially in the brisk second movement: Polera was guilty of an almost too vigorous opening tempo, storming through various runs, right up to the finish, eliciting vigorous premature applause. The sonata hinges on a familiar six-note motive, rising first but quickly descending, which gets repeated and reworked in all the movements. It’s not possible, but it sounded like Hakhnazaryan invested each repeat with a new insight, enlivening the reading throughout. 

Terrifically virtuosic playing highlighted the Chopin, especially in thumb position, where the composer demands feathery fingering, often accompanied by ponticello bowing, to create delicate gestures that starkly contrast the otherwise ferocious playing. This is a stately work of imaginative structure, the pianist subtly guiding the attack; Polera showed why she is widely admired for her expertise accompanying cellists.

A brief pause led to the Ligeti sonata, another bold work with extended technique. A handsomely wrought piece, its two movements—Dialogo and Capriccio—sound entirely unrelated, with the opening lyrical, invoking popular, folk-style melodies, and the Capriccio relentlessly driving in the same rhythmic pattern. Only a touching quote from the Dialogo that interrupts the second movement yokes them together. Hakhnazaryan made the most of the moment, sticking the pause before and after dramatically.

Even greater technical challenges faced the soloist in Bronner’s theatrical The Jew: Life and Death. In two fanciful movements, it was highlighted by pizzicato of every variant, including a remarkable kind of pizzicato glissando, martelé bowing, and the cellist even moaning a low drone and whistling sometimes, with the pianist tapping her feet noisily as well.

Tchaikovsky’s familiar and equally demanding works concluded the ambitious program, offering further confirmation—if any was needed—that this is a cellist with a major future. Lyrical and spirited interplay governed the reading. 

The afternoon opened with a personal remembrance by Hakhnazaryan of Armenian composer Edvard Mirzoyan, who passed away over the weekend, and a performance of Fauré’s Elégié was offered in remembrance. Then, having invested the entire program with virtuosity, the cellist ended the recital with an encore of a work from the legend of virtuosity himself, Paganini’s Variations on One String from a Theme of Rossini’s Moses.

Music at the Gardner continues 1:30 p.m. Oct. 14 with New York Festival of Song in a program called “Dvorak and the American Soul.” gardnermuseum.org; 617-278-5156.

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