January 22-28, 2006

NATALIA GUTMAN – Concert of Solo and Chamber music

January 22-28, 2006
Sanders Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Terrace Theatre, Washington, District of Columbia
Kimmel Center, Perelman Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater, New York

Ms. Gutman’s U. S. tour included: the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, January 22, 2006; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Terrace Theatre in Washington, D. C., on Tuesday, January 24; North Shore Center in Skokie, IL on Thursday, January 26; Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theatre in Philadelphia, Friday, January 27, and the Alice Tully Hall concert on Saturday, January 28.

Performances in the United States by Ms. Gutman have been rare as her foreign travel was greatly restricted by the Soviet government. Gutman’s American career started in Decemver 1969 in New York when she appeared as soloist with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

The years of her restricted travel (she was not permitted to leave the Soviet Union for nine years) were, however, a time of great musical and creative growth; with her husband, Oleg Kagan (who was also Jewish and was prohibited from leaving the USSR) and other world renowned musicians, she played a great deal of new music and gave several concerts (she was playing extensively in Russia all those years) within Russia. When the gates opened, Ms. Gutman was able to perform often in Europe, and eventually made her way back to America. In 1986, with the USSR Symphony under Evgeny Svetlanov, she and Oleg Kagan performed the Brahms Double Concerto in Carnegie Hall. Around 1988, she performed with the Chicago Symphony under Claudio Abbado and, in 1989, was soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in three concerts with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

In the 1990’s, Natalia Gutman was soloist with the Houston Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach; The Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch in the Dvorak Concerto; the National Symphony under Rostropovich in the Dvorak (also performing with him in Salzburg); and the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur in two sets of concerts, including 2003 concerts of the Schnittke Concerto with those same forces.


Event Reviews

Monday, January 30, 2006
Chamber Playing With a Russian Accent

The cellist Natalia Gutman hails from Russian string-playing aristocracy. Her grandparents studied with the great violin teacher Leopold Auer. She was married to the violinist Oleg Kagan, studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and often performed with the piano titan Sviatoslav Richter. Not surprisingly then, the audience at her Alice Tully Hall recital on Saturday night was a happy combination of typical New York concertgoers and passionate Russian listeners, one of whom could be heard bellowing “Bravo!” with a most shapely Slavic “o.”

As a cellist, Ms. Gutman has enjoyed an accomplished solo career, but she has also stayed committed to chamber music and her program drew from both worlds. Her opening Bach Suite (No. 3) displayed a tone that was at once large, weighty and burnished, but her interpretative ideas were surprisingly muted and her delivery plain-spoken, suggesting little patience for subtlety. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata drew more expressive and imaginative playing.

But the evening’s clear highlights were the two piano trios (Brahms’s Third and Shostakovich’s Second) that Ms. Gutman blazed through with the violinist Slava Moroz and the pianist Dmitri Shteinberg. Mr. Moroz is a wiry, muscular player with a quick, edgy vibrato and a huge Slavic tone. Mr. Shteinberg’s approach was more protean and refined but equally engaging.

As a group, their playing was short on polish but no one cared. From the high-voltage opening of the Brahms, it was clear that this reading would crackle with raw Russian-style electricity. More surprising in the Brahms were the moments of veiled and shivery opalescence, which called to mind the sound world of Shostakovich. Yet that composer’s trio, performed last, made the Brahms seem tame. The players hurled excitingly through the wild second movement, showing not only abundant zeal for this music but also the comfort of native ground.

Saturday, January 28, 2006
Natalia Gutman, Solo Cello and Trios, at Tully Hall
Review by Robert D. Ekselman

Natalia Gutman’s all too rare appearance in recital in the United States opened with the popular Suite for Cello Solo No.3 by J.S. Bach. The quality of the key, allowing the use and full exploration of the open strings of the cello, gives a unique opportunity for the cellist to take advantage of the instrument’s scope and broad range. This is a very triumphantly joyous work, the writing being very cellistic, with many leaps over large distances, yet remaining mostly in the lower register of the instrument.

With penetrating tonal resonance and studious authority Ms. Gutman, unsmiling, and looking like this was to be an evening of serious business – dressed all in black – presented a performance paying respects to historical authenticity. She held the bow further out from the frog than is prescribed for modern playing and used shorter bows, with a liberal application of single bow strokes to highlight contrapuntal lines and suggest polyphony. The vibrato was kept to a minimum. It was only after the Sarabande – the third movement – that I felt some light peeking through, with a more relaxed approach being taken in the second half of the suite. The Bourée was more lyrical than she had allowed herself to be in earlier movements, with a gradual shift back to the modern bow hold closer to the frog. The concluding Gigue was taken at an impressive clip.

The tone was never pretty, but conveyed an honest humanity, focusing attention directly towards Bach. Although the musical lines were carved as though out of granite, and revealed the profound quality of the writing, the emotional impact was not always fully conveyed, perhaps because Ms. Gutman was caught up in projecting Bach as the architectural genius that he is and in seeing to it that not a single note was lost on the listener? It was, even so, the kind of reverential playing that makes you sit up and pay attention.

In the second item of the program – Brahms’ Trio in C minor – Ms. Gutman was joined by violinist Slava Moroz and pianist Dmitri Shteinberg. The ensemble was generally tight, but what struck me in this performance was the lack of vibe between the artists and the visually detached presence of the three. The first movement may have benefited also from a change of character into the first major theme, which was presented with too much matter-of-factness. As this is already a dense work, any relief is particularly welcome. Both the second and third movements needed stronger characterization and perhaps more tenderness. The fourth movement is one of those wonderful fiery creations in which Brahms thrives – a perfect vehicle for his cross-rhythms and intricately interwoven string writing.

Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata – which opened the second half of the recital, is one of the gems of the cello repertoire. Its transparent beauty, pathos, and easy melodic charm endear it to all audiences. It’s fluid lines can easily deceive because it is one of the most treacherously difficult pieces to perform – as it is not written to dazzle, and yet needs to sound unlabored. The Arpeggione itself – the instrument for which it was originally written – had six strings and was fretted like a guitar. By comparison with the cello, it appears to have been capable of easily incorporating a higher register – where much of the Arpeggione Sonata is written, but, in its setting for the cello, leaves the majority of us mortal instrumentalists, who take up the challenge to play this piece, drowning and stewing in our own sweat.

Ms. Gutman reigned supreme in the playing of this Sonata and proved herself to be an interpreter of depth and conviction. In noted contrast to the first half of the program, her tone was unforced and had an ethereal quality that transported the music to the exalted level where it deserves to be heard. It seemed as though she was trying less hard and was connecting more directly to the music. The psychological shift was breathtaking, because her very ample technical means was being fully utilized towards a musical end. This powerful interpretation – particularly in first movement – was nevertheless unexpected, given the austere attitude in her approach to Bach. The Schubert was truly thrilling. We were hearing almost another cellist entirely, which made me even more aware of the strength and scope of her personality.

The first movement was taken at an unusually slow tempo, and yet her unhurried long vocal lines were spun with a masterly sense of grace and harmonic structure, which only a mature understanding of the work and a sympathetic appreciation could bring about.
Her tone was at its most alluring when – being transported to the musical heights – Ms. Gutman was not caught up with concerns of tonal projection as with the Bach. The slow movement was approached with more formality, but was beautifully poised. The final movement’s opening phrase was played non-legato, with stress on the rhythmic thrust, rather than on its lyricism. This was a little exaggerated for my taste, and perhaps it could have benefited from more Viennese charm and less soloistic muscle. One may quibble with this or that, but there was no questioning her authority.

I noticed that although her phrasing was musically unrestricted, Ms. Gutman had a striking habit of playing a long phrase in a single bow and leaving the last portion to an almost non-existent amount of bow, which appeared cumbersome and surprising in an artist with such technical versatility. I regret that the recital was not limited – instrumentally that is – to piano and cello, as this was by far the artistic highlight of the evening and revealed a completely new dimension to Ms. Gutman’s artistry, something that was lost in the two trio works. Mr. Shteinberg’s accompaniment was discreet and assured. He was impressive in his ability to follow the cellist, particularly in this work that requires many subtle adjustments and flexibility of rhythm.

The final work on the program, Shostakovich’s very powerful Piano Trio No.2 in E minor saw Ms. Gutman in her interpretative element. Unfortunately, once again I had the feeling that her two colleagues were not enhancing this performance as much as they might have. The Trio was written in 1944 – as news of the Holocaust would have first reached Shostakovich. It was written in memory of his Jewish friend, the Russian musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, who died under tragic circumstances in World War II. This would not be the first time that the composer drew on Jewish themes or motives to express – most probably – oppression under the totalitarian soviet regime of Stalin. Shostakovich had many Jewish friends and was sympathetic to their plight, speaking both historically and as it pertained to the current government. The writing gives the effect sometimes of laughter through tears, but it is also clearly an expression of anguish.

Mr. Shteinberg has an easy fluency and natural technical gifts, but did not appear to be taking enough advantage of his equipment in the service of expression and could have achieved a more vivid and sympathetic character portrayal. I have no doubt he possesses the talent and means to do this. Much of the strength of this work is written between the lines – the sarcastic humor, the bitter sense of irony – the resignation. The opening chords of the slow movement, for example, require clearer voicing, and depth – and a sense of pain. The dizzyingly fast second movement whizzed by, but sounded too much like an advanced technical study, the eighth notes flying off the page too unburdened and lacking nuance. Mr. Moroz is an accomplished violinist and played with authority. I would like to have heard more contrasts in mood and felt that his fast vibrato was sometimes limiting his expression rather than enhancing the music. This was such a strikingly impressive facet of Natalia Gutman’s playing – particularly in the Schubert, where her vibrato was always an integral part of her expression, rather than just a garnish. The allegro was repeated as an encore.

I was disappointed not to have any program notes and would have been thrilled to hear Ms. Gutman once again play a cello encore – and so would the audience! Nevertheless the concert was a treat and one to be remembered – a concert that will create much discussion, particularly amongst cello enthusiasts. Natalia Gutman is in my opinion, and the opinion of many authorities, one of the important cellists of her generation and an interpreter to be reckoned with. The significance of an approach to music such as hers is that the artist is prepared to make a personal statement that moves far beyond any ‘objective’ reading of the score. I only wish that this were more universally the case.

Venue: Sanders Theatre

Inspired by Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, England, Sanders Theater is famous for its design and its acoustics. A member of the League of Historic American Theaters, the 1,166 seat theater offers a unique and intimate 180 degree design which provides unusual proximity to the stage. The theater was designed to function as a major lecture hall and as the site of college commencements. Although Sanders saw its last commencement exercise in 1922, the theater continues to play a major role in the academic mission of Harvard College.

Order tickets by phone: The Harvard Box Office 617-496-2222. Harvard Box Office Sales Booth 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 Smith Campus Center in Harvard Square Phone: 617.496.2222 Tuesday-Sunday, 12:00-6:00 pm

Sanders Theatre Box Office 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 Open for day of show performances only. 12:00pm for matinees, 5:00pm for evenings.

45 Quincy St,
Cambridge, MA 02138
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