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An Impressive Sunlit Duo at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Oct 1st, 2017

Sophie Shao and Ieva Jokubaviciute

On a gorgeous afternoon of clear blue autumn skies, Vassar College’s cellist Sophie Shao teamed up with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute from Lithuania for afternoon at Skinner Hall. They began with Zoltán Kodály’s Sonatina for cello and piano. A railroad station master’s son, Kodály (1882-1967)so loved music that he taught himself the cello in order to write music. He revisited this unfinished 1910 Sonatina intending to complete the second movement in 1922, but after revising the first movement and completing the second, he decided the revised work had little to do with the original work, and so he let the first movement stand by itself; it is generally thought that this resourceful composition remains thoroughly Hungarian in its pentatonic contours and inspiration, yet there is subliminal presence of Claude Debussy’s coloration shading Hungarian folk tunes. Both performers caught the immediacy that sunlit aura of color in this portrait of Hungarian hills, valleys, and streams.

Sonata for solo cello, Op. 8 (1915) is perhaps Kodály’s most famous repertoire piece; he predicted that "in 25 years no cellist will be accepted who has not played it”; its fame was slow to catch on: first played by János Starker in 1939 when Starker was 15, it was not played in the United Sates until 1947, but by 1956 the sonata was a set piece for the Casals Competition in Mexico City. Sophie Shao plays on an Honore Derazy cello, the very one that Pablo Casals had once played.

The Sonata wavers between B and B-flat to extend the tonal range of the cello with the lower strings tuned down one semitone. In three movements the cello rides the mountains, hills, and plains of Hungary with nationalist zeal, as in the third movement the Hungarian cavalry rides to the rescue, commemorating the 1456 victory over the invading Ottomans, which is still celebrated to this day on July 22. At that time Pope Callixtus III ordered the bells of every European church to be rung every day at noon as a call for believers to pray for the defenders of the Belgrade; and to this day that is why bells are rung at noon (and in secular imitation fire departments ring their sirens at noon, although they may not know why).  

Full of fireworks, the range of sounds from low to high and the leaps between high and low notes are breathtaking, evoking sounds that display Kodály’s gifted imagination. Shao had no difficulty conquering this mountain with ease and grace in one of the most technically demanding compositions in the cello repertory (it contains much tour-de-force pizzicato). And she invested it all with deep emotion.

After brief intermission, Jokubaviciute joined Shao for Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5. Beethoven was the first to develop a cello line in his earlier trios and this was the first sonata ever written for the cello as an equal partner in conversation with the piano. Glissando runs of playful feminine joy alternate with the more sober cello in ravishing flirtation. Jokubaviciute ably captured that rapturous, slightly mischievous cheerfulness of happy teen life as Shao recorded the more careful wooing of a possible mate.

A standard of every cellist, Antonín Dvořák’s Rondo in G minor, Op. 68, No. 5 was composed on Christmas Day in 1891, just before Dvořák departed to the United States; it was performed at his farewell concert tour before his departure in 1892. This good-humored festive composition, which wavers between despondency and optimism, eventually conjures such sheer cheer that one cannot resist a smile when it is played with the synchronous buoyancy that Shao and  Jokubaviciute conjured.

They concluded with Dvořák’s Silent Woods in D-flat Major, Op. 68, No. 5 which describes a Thoreau-like transcendent walk in the woods with delicious melody, vivid syncopations, and a gently plodding bass line from the cello which conjure footfall steps in the Czech woods. While Dvořák, a viola player, wrote few works for the cello, those works he did write project remarkable contentment, amusement, and delight—here captured by two players whose instruments were linked in glee.