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Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk at the Aspect Chamber Music series, 13 April 2023
Photo credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review: Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk – ‘Against the Tide: Rachmaninoff & Franck’ (13 April 2023)

César Franck’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano is the French composer’s most popular instrumental work. Its transcription for cello, though, is heard much less often, at least in my experience – in fact, I had never heard it before last night’s performance by cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. Also on the program was Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19, in a program titled ‘Against the Tide: Rachmaninoff & Franck,’ part of the Aspect Chamber Music Series in New York City.

César Franck, Transformed

The cellist told Blogcritics recently that the cello transcription of the Franck Violin Sonata feels to him like a different piece – and organic to the cello.

To a listener who knows the Sonata, it’s not likely to feel like a different piece; and whether it seems organic to the cello depends not only on the transcription but on the musicians’ interpretation.

If a test of some sort was in the air, the performance passed it handily. Had I never heard the music before, I would not have thought it had been conceived for any other instrument.

That’s despite the fact when cellist Jules Delsart made his transcription (with Franck’s blessing) back in 1888, he didn’t revise the piano part at all, as musicologist Nicholas Chong explained in his sprightly introductory mini-lecture.

That means that because of the cello’s lower range, the two instruments much more often play in the same register. However, thanks to Elschenbroich’s vigorous technique, Grynyuk’s dexterity and restraint, and the Bohemian National Hall’s excellent acoustics, the cello part stood out crisply even in its lower range. (This is not always the case at piano-cello concerts.) And happily so, because both musicians delivered outstanding interpretations, and I would not have wanted to miss a note.

Elschenbroich’s yearning, golden cello tone sprang forth from the start. Combined with the piano’s lower and middle range, his up-front timbre gave a smoky richness to the overall sound, yet crystalline clarity also persisted. The synchrony and balance were such that I would have imagined the duo had performed the piece together many times before, when in fact it was their first outing with it.

The tumbling piano figures of the Allegro seemed effortless in Grynyuk’s hands. He drew an exquisite sound from the Steinway in the dreamy Recitativo-Fantasia slow movement, where delicacy and flow met peacefully. In the final movement, playfulness and depth emerged together from an impressively rich realization.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, in the Zone

In the opening movement of the Rachmaninoff, Elschenbroich’s cello sang luxuriously, soaring to its high register while Grynyuk navigated the piano part with sensitivity and restraint. This made the movement’s dominant attack, when it came, all the more effective, the music’s inehrent passion on full display.

The Allegro Scherzando was a thrill, the cellist’s fingers flying over the strings in the edgy rocketing passages, breathing room arising during the lyrical interludes. This movement has always given me a shiver of glee. This duo did not disappoint.

The Andante built from measured and subdued up to the fulness of the high Romantic style, with the duo going just big enough. And in the finale they at times sounded like more than two instruments – brilliantly impassioned, performing the cascading runs in lockstep, ascending to the evening’s peak.

Both the Franck and the Rachmaninoff put me into that listening zone where time passes without its usual weight. That’s my number one sign that justice is being done to the great music on the program.

Chong’s high-spirited mini-lectures added welcome context to both works. He must be a fun professor in the classroom. Aspect Chamber Music concerts always include worthy guest speakers – though the next concert, with the Brentano Quartet on April 27, will feature something a little different. (Hint: It’s National Poetry Month.) You can read about that in our preview, and then purchase tickets at the Aspect website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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