It is barely believable that Nicolas Altstaedt and Aleksandar Madžar, whose talents meshed so seamlessly together throughout Wednesday night’s (27 September) concert at the Queensland Conservatorium, are on their first ever concert tour as a duo.
These well-matched musicians simply did not put a foot wrong in their presentation of a series of cello sonatas ranging in style from the sublime to the eclectic. Plaudits must surely go to Musica Viva for bringing about this exceptional pairing.
Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, often to be found rapturously staring into the distance, allowed the full range of his 250-year-old Giulio Cesare Gigli cello to shine, followed and complemented every step of the way by Aleksandar Madžar’s sublime, Russian-school pianism.Click here for more photos.
The programme began with Debussy’s 'Cello Sonata'. Written in the midst of the first World War and Debussy’s own battle with cancer, the resultant angst informs a composition encompassing the very widest emotional range, alongside equally broad technique, with large sections of almost tragi-comic pizzicato, strumming of chords and sweeping bow-strokes.
A little-known work by Nadia Boulanger, much better known as a music teacher and conductor than a composer, followed. Lighter-hearted in tone than the Debussy, 'Three Pieces for cello and piano', clearly beloved of Altstaedt, still puts the instruments and performers through their paces, particularly in the thrillingly energetic third movement. Boulanger stopped composing altogether in 1918 after the early death of her sister Lily, who was also a composer, in order to support her family. Altstaedt champions her cause as a composer of note in an interview for Musica Viva and also in selecting the little-played third movement of this piece for their encore.Image © Karen Hutt
The first half concluded with Benjamin Britten’s 'Cello Sonata in C major', one of a series of works composed specifically for virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and therefore arguably one of the more demanding pieces in the repertoire. True to form, the duo faultlessly negotiated its complexities, culminating in a breathless finale with the cello bow literally bouncing over the strings.
After the interval, Brahms’ Cello Sonata no 2 presented a somewhat lighter version of the composer than usual. There is the expected drama here, but the piece is brightened by passages of what has been described as ‘musical good humour’. The work was written, among others, during a summer holiday on the shores of Lake Thun in Switzerland and the sunnier tone all too obviously reflects the composer’s happy time there.Click here for more photos.
Whilst Altstaedt’s playing more than ably demonstrated the widest reasonable range of cello technique, it is arguable that in Jakub Jankowski’s 'Aspects of Return', the piano part forced Madžar to stray into the realms of the unreasonable, with books being placed on the strings and a business card dragged across the keys. The former effect created quite an interesting soundscape, but Jankowski’s instruction for the latter (originally fingernails dragged across the keys without depressing them) felt a little gimmicky.
Nevertheless, 'Aspects of Return', commissioned by Musica Viva specifically for this duo and premiered on this tour, complete with whistling cellist (!), is an engaging work and provided a fitting finale to an evening of extraordinary music-making.Claude Debussy: 'Cello Sonata' (1915)Nadia Boulanger: 'Three Pieces for cello and piano' (1914)Benjamin Britten: 'Cello Sonata in C major', op 65 (1961)Johannes Brahms: 'Cello Sonata no 2', op 99 (1886)Jakub Jankowski: 'Aspects of Return for cello and piano' (2017)