Two young Russians shine in Romantic music for cello and piano at Rockport

June 30, 2013 at 3:44 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Ilya Kazantsev performed Saturday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

After the failure of his First Symphony in 1897, Sergei Rachmaninoff abandoned composition for good.

Or so he thought. Three years later he broke his silence with the monumental Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19.

Saturday night at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Ilya Kazantsev offered the work as the final piece on their program. Their sensitive and polished reading made it the centerpiece of an evening filled with tender Romantic music.

Cast in four movements, Rachmaninoff’s sonata mixes aria-like lyricism, brooding passages, and lush textures into a piece of symphonic grandeur. Throughout, Antonov and Kazantsev made easy work of the musical lines, which are spread evenly between the two instruments, as well as the ever-changing moods. Each movement abounds with lyrical phrases, and rich orchestral effects, such as cascading piano filigree and churning cello figures, occasionally pepper the score. Most affecting was the third movement, which contains, perhaps, some of the composer’s most beautiful music. Here, Antonov answered Kazantsev’s crystalline piano phrases with silvery cello sound.

As with Rachmaninoff, a work for cello and piano brought Edvard Grieg back from a hiatus due to personal troubles. His Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 36, of 1883 has much of the same elements and structure as the Russian composer’s later work. The opening movement is a tempestuous affair where agitated passages abruptly give way to sweetly singing ones.

Antonov and Kazantsev took a somewhat subdued approach to the opening, though they added more gusto as the movement progressed. Kazantsev stretched out the folksong-like lines of the second movement; Antonov answered in kind, and the two took their time crafting each of the phrases before reaching an elegant conclusion. The third movement showcased the duo’s playing in vivacious folk dances and moments of Lisztian darkness. Here too, the musicians handled all with grace.

Though written in a similar style to these muscular pieces, Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata, Op. 6—a change from Paul Creston’s Suite for Cello and Piano listed in the program—was nonetheless complementary. The prodigiously talented Barber would suffer from his own energy-sapping bouts of depression in his later years, but when he finished this sonata at age 22, those days were still a long way off.

The work’s tight three-movement structure contains the sweeping melodies and wide emotional range that would characterize much of his later music. As in their readings of the Grieg and Rachmaninoff, the musicians held nothing back. Antonov played with a powerful and rich cello sound, and Kazantsev’s fine piano touch made effective work of the gnawing dissonances and glistening harmonics of the piano part. Moreover, the duo performed with fine attention to the music’s dialogue, where winding melodies break away to angular twists and turns.

After warm applause and two curtain calls, Antonov and Kazantsev offered a string of their favorite encores. The first, Karl Davidoff’s wispy At the Fountain, took the cellist all over the instrument’s fingerboard. The second, their own arrangements of Scriabin’s Etudes Op. 8 nos. 11 and 12, played back to back, returned the duo to the lush sound worlds they had been exploring all evening.

Pianist Joyce Yang will perform 5 p.m. Sunday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391 

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