Monday, February 14, 2022

concert review: Thomas Mesa and Ilya Yakushev

I didn't actually get to this concert at Kohl Mansion on January 16, but I was privileged to see the videorecording (not on general release), which occupied me for part of the time that the rest of the world was at the Super Bowl. Excellent close-up footage from across the (not large) hall, and vivid acoustics including enough ambient sounds to underscore that you were getting the full range of what the musicians played.

The highlight of this cello-and-piano recital was Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, one of his only two full-sized adult works for chamber ensemble. Full-sized it is, too, an epic work both in length and the amount of effort required by the players. It has its share of lyric episodes, some of which even sound like Rachmaninoff, but the emphasis here was on the dramatic parts. Mesa's cello growled and sputtered and wailed affectingly while Yakushev rang out notes on the piano.

The rest of the program was distinctly more lyrical. Brahms's Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38, was slow and grave and carefully restrained, and a similar ambience affected a tiny prelude by Lera Auerbach (one of her more agreeable works), a nocturne by Chopin that Yakushev played by himself, and the encore, the inevitable "Swan" by Saint-Saƫns. Mesa's cello throughout all of this was deep-toned even in the higher notes, and high-lying passages evinced the slightest strain which underpinned that the depths were where Mesa was most in comfort.

A couple brief excerpts from a "Spanish Suite" by Joaquin Nin ran more lively, but the truly notable short work on the program was an unaccompanied cello piece that Mesa commissioned early in the pandemic from a NYC composer named Andrea Casarrubios. Titled "Seven" for the daily 7 PM tribute to essential workers that New Yorkers were paying, this is a fairly introverted, rather than celebratory, 9-minute piece with some strikingly beautiful sonorities. It begins (and ends) with soft harmonics interrupted with frequent deep- and dark-toned pizzicato throbs, which reappear in other contexts as well. A lyrical passage accompanied by a lower-pitched drone in the same rhythm was another highlight of this haunting composition.

I tend to gravitate towards larger chamber ensembles, but this was a two-person show well worth hearing.

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