Cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Marc-André Hamelin. (composite image courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Moser and Hamelin join forces to make big music at Spivey Hall

CONCERT REVIEW:
Johannes Moser & Marc-André Hamelin
October 7, 2023
Spivey Hall, Clayton State University
Morrow, GA – USA
Johannes Moser, cello; Marc-André Hamelin, piano.
Nadia BOULANGER: Three Pieces
Marc-André HAMELIN: Four Perspectives
Claude DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata in D Minor
César FRANCK: Cello Sonata in A Major

William Ford | 10 OCT 2023

The stage at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall manages to host some of the biggest names in the classical music world. The Hall’s renowned acoustics play the perfect host, especially for chamber-sized groups.

The latest program featured cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, both of whom have developed admirable reputations from recordings and the concert hall.

The last time I heard Moser was about a decade ago at Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center, where he and the Pittsburgh Symphony under Manfred Honeck presented a powerhouse performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. The intermission patron conversation was abuzz with acclaim for both the soloist and orchestra. Moser, with his energetic presentation, played with fervor and Romantic intensity, so suited to the beloved concerto.


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At Spivey, the program began with Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914). Boulanger was an extraordinarily influential French composer, conductor, and music educator. While she had a significant body of compositions, she was not a particularly prolific composer, but as a pedagogue, she taught many leading 20th-century composers, soloists, arrangers, and conductors, particularly in the United States. Some of her students included Daniel Barenboim, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Astor Piazzolla, and Virgil Thomson.

The first movement is dreamy and introspective, with the cello carrying the melody over the piano. The second is a folk-like song. Both seem elegiac. The third movement is lively and energetic, with jazz-adjacent passages that may have been influenced by the emerging “new” American idiom. Some writers have described Boulanger’s music as lightweight, but the Three Pieces are captivating, especially when played with the subtlety of Moser and Hamelin. They brought out both the melancholy and the energy of this work. It was a great introduction to their program.


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Next was Four Perspectives for Cello and Piano, composed by Hamelin. This twelve-minute, four-section work was written in 2016, and it reflects what the program notes say: “…recalls the brutal modernism of some American composers of the 20th century…”. It is a dissonant dialogue between the two instruments that grows in strength and aggressiveness over the three movements. It suffers or benefits (depending on your perspective) from the sonic explorations of mid-20th century academics, particularly in the US. To my ear, it was inhospitable; it was brash, bold, and unforgiving.

Claude Debussy’s 1915 Cello Sonata was next. Debussy meant it as an homage to the French style of composition, which, for him, meant clarity of expression and precise form. Debussy wrote the piece after having taken a one-year break from composing after the death of his wife. The two instruments often imitate, answer, or complement each other, and the work includes various instrumental techniques, such as crisp staccato accents in both the cello and piano. But this is a late work of the composer, so it is more hard-edged than his earlier “impressionism” (La Mer, or Afternoon of a Faun). Moser and Hamelin accentuated that hard edge with big sounds and muscular playing. There was no subtlety, no nuance. While the playing was virtuosic, it was not particularly idiomatic. It was a performance full of Moser and Hamelin, with only shades of Debussy.


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After the intermission, the duo presented Cesar Franck’s 1886 Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, arranged for cello and piano by Jules Delsart. The work uses a cyclical structure, where thematic material from earlier movements reappears and is transformed in later movements. This provides a certain unity across the work. Franck was mostly known as an organist, and his sonata reflects the hyper-Romanticism of Wagner and Liszt. Moser and Hamelin again played with a big-attention-grabbing style that turned red-hot passages into a white-hot extravaganza of emotionalism and muscularity. It was not a performance for the faint of heart. It was rather exhausting.

The audience of roughly 250 people showed their appreciation by calling the duo back to the stage several times. In return, they offered a sweet encore of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, played with restraint and elegance.

This performance spotlighted the talent and virtuosity of Moser and Hamelin, and indeed, they succeeded.   ■

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About the author:
William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and www.atlantamusiccritic.com

Read more by William Ford.
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