It was cruel of cellist Pieter Wispelwey to play the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata as his only encore at April 19’s recital presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association. He performed this grotesque scherzo brilliantly, fully as well as everything else he touched. But its three minutes were not enough to sate the hunger pangs churning in the aesthetic innards of the audience by the time he reached the end of the frail Beethoven-and-Schubert program he had constructed.
Beethoven and Schubert were two of the greatest composers, but that doesn’t mean that everything they wrote was golden. In this recital, Beethoven was represented by the three sets of variations he composed for cello and piano — one on a theme by Handel, two on themes by Mozart — during his first decade as an emerging composer in Vienna. Slight and predictable though they are, these are useful pieces. Cellists often drop one or another of them into a recital to offset more substantial fare, and when they perform traversals of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas (normally distributed over two recitals), the variations provide pleasant punctuation between the principal items. On their own, they add up to little.
Schubert was somewhat better represented, but even his Arpeggione Sonata is at most a bantamweight in his catalog and in a cellist’s potential repertoire. It’s not even a cello piece, strictly speaking; but since the arpeggione, a peculiar hybrid of a bass viol and a guitar, disappeared not long after Schubert did, this work is normally entrusted today to cello (or sometimes flute). Lovely it is, but it’s not a masterpiece. The interpretation was idiomatic and thoughtful, the adagio moving more fleetly than we often hear it, the finale loping along in a spirit of relaxed gemütlichkeit. Wispelwey’s playing was everywhere impeccable, as was Paolo Giacometti’s sensitive, supportive pianism. A thoroughly modern cellist, Wispelwey prefers the clarity of historically informed style (much cultivated in his native Holland) to the soulful outbursts of the late-Romantic cello tradition. Though he is a subtly expressive player, his expressivity is of a purely musical sort. His centered tone is never sterile. At any moment, his entire world seems to be distilled into the shading of a single attack, the energizing of a sustained tone, or the gradation of a restrained vibrato.
Having enjoyed two sets of Beethoven variations and the Schubert sonata, quite a few members of the audience made their exit during intermission. I can’t blame them: a glance at the program confirmed that the second half of the concert would be more of the same. It was similarly genial but, from a musical standpoint, still more monotonous, since the concluding item, Schubert’s C-Major Fantasy for Violin and Piano (here in Wispelwey’s own cello transcription) is itself focused on a set of variations, in this case derived from one of Schubert’s songs. Written at the beginning of his final year, it’s an estimable but not important composition, and it underscores that Schubert’s exorbitant gifts did not extend to being a good editor. It’s a 22-minute piece that doesn’t contain 22 minutes of inspiration. Wispelwey’s playing and musicianship were of the first order; his programming, not so much. I do hope he’ll pay a return visit, and that he’ll bring along the rest of the Shostakovich Sonata when he does.
— James M. Keller