On Sunday afternoon, the young Norwegian cellist J. Swensen came to the Sunday Salon Series at Krannert’s Foellinger Great Hall for an exciting recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Zoltan Kodaly and Cesar Franck. Swensen is the winner of the 2018 Young Concert Artists Award. He was joined at the piano for most of the recital by Noreen Cassidy-Polera.
This is a Beethoven Commemorative year (250th anniversary of his birth in 1770), and Swenson chose to open his program with the charming “Seven Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen,” a duet from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” Swenson showed himself to be a carefree, relaxed performer, with exemplary technical facility, and he drew from his cello a warm, appealing tone.
After the varied and delightful Beethoven Variations, Swensen dared to climb one of the peaks of the cello repertory, the 1918 Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8 by Zoltan Kodaly. This half-hour work combines intense emotional expression with an array of technical effects from the cello. Swensen here proved himself capable of conveying the powerful feelings of Kodaly, as well as dazzling the audience with brilliant display of the work’s demands. By the work’s end, Swenson did not seem exhausted, but this listener felt that he had heard all the cello could say as well as the means to say it.
After intermission, Swensen and Cassidy-Polera played a cello transcription of Cesar Franck’s most famous chamber piece, his Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. Franck’s work seemed tame after Kodaly, but Swensen and Cassidy-Polera drew exquisite results from Franck’s emotive climaxes. Swensen played with admirable poise, and Cassidy-Polera showed marked virtuosity in Franck’s stormier passages.
At the end of the Franck work, the audience rose in appreciation, and if there was any doubt Swensen’s musical tastes inclined to the romantic, he and Casssidy-Polera played as encore the slow movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. Swenson conveyed with superb tone Rachmaninoff’s lovely melancholy, and then the audience rose again.
On Tuesday evening, Feb. 25, the concert in the Foellinger Great Hall was entitled “Michael Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble.” Michael Barenboim is the violinist son of the world-famous pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. The title “West-Eastern Divan” is inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetry collection “West-Ostlicher Divan,” entitled in a tribute to the great Persian poet Hafiz. Organized in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, this musical group, which usually plays as an orchestra, is an attempt to get Israeli and Arab musicians to put aside political differences and play music together. On this occasion, eight string players of the orchestra formed this “ensemble.”
The program opened with one of Johannes Brahms’ most appealing chamber compositions, the String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18. Six of the Divan players performed with enthusiasm the lovely melodies of the first two movements as well as the lighter flights of the last two movements.
The second work on the program was by Benjamin Attahir. The program booklet contained no information about this piece, entitled “Jawb,” which was also the title of a poem in French (with English translation) printed in the program booklet. The poem dealt with the experience of leaving a place and trying to forget it, but the poet suggests the process arouses unresolved struggle and interior conflict. And Attahir’s music exuded conflict. The eight Divan players conveyed strongly the splintering of jagged entries and the obsessive repetition of disconnected fragments.
After intermission, Barenboim, all alone, played Giuseppe Tartini’s famous “Devil’s Trill” sonata. The title comes from the story that Tartini had a dream in which the devil inspired him to write a sonata, which he did, after awakening. On this evidence we may surmise that the devil is an accomplished violinist, and Barenboim showed impressive command of Tartini’s musical labyrinth.
When one has eight string players, the inevitable programming choice seems to be the Octet, Op. 20 by the 18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The young Divan players gave a delightfully contained performance of the famous Scherzo and immediately raced into the “Presto” finale, which was played with increasing excitement, and brilliant playing especially by Barenboim as first violinist. The thrilling finish drew cheers from the standing audience. The names of these fine players, aside from Barenboim, were Samir Naser Abdel Hamid Obaido, Yamen Saadi and David Strongin, violins; Miriam Manasherov and Sindy Mohamed, violas; and Assif Binness and Astrig Spidak Siranossian, cello. May they go on to fulfilling careers, in peace and harmony.