Wang, Nies deliver romanticism with Russian passion

There’s just one thing in Nashville I like better than a Felix Wang cello recital. And that’s a Felix Wang cello recital with Craig Nies assisting on piano.

felixThose two formidable virtuosos, both professors at the Blair School of Music, were on hand Wednesday evening to open the conservatory’s 2012-13 recital series. Their all-Russian program had obviously generated a lot of excitement. Turner Hall was packed to the gills, and latecomers were forced to stand along the back wall.

Not that they were complaining. Throughout the duo’s 70-minute recital, the audience sat (or stood) transfixed, listening with rapt attention to every note played. Admittedly, one could hear an occasional hushed exclamation of “yeah!” emanating from the audience during the concert. But mostly there was silence of the bated-breath variety, a restraint that was maintained not out of any misguided sense of proper classical music decorum, but simply because no one wanted to miss a single expressive detail.

The recital opened with Shostakovich’s magnificent Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. This sonata was written during a time of personal turmoil in Shostakovich’s life – as opposed to his many periods of extended political turmoil – and perhaps for that reason the piece seemingly leaves no emotion unexplored. At any given moment, Shosty’s sonata is sensuous, nostalgic, playful, witty, bleak and sardonic. Wang and Nies, to their credit, gave each of these feelings its due.

Wang was most impressive when his playing was at its most lyrical. He played the opening “Allegro non troppo” with a golden tone and with long, lush lyrical lines. His interpretation of the “Largo” – which is surely the heart of this sonata – was thoughtful and unfailingly sensitive.

NiesHeadNies, for his part, provided expressive playing throughout. But his performance in the finale was especially memorable. This movement sounds, in places, like a virtuoso Russian piano concerto, complete with blistering scale runs. Nies played this music with just the right mix of polish and passion.

After a short intermission, the duo concluded with Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19. The cello was reportedly Rachmaninoff’s favorite string instrument – no doubt, the cello’s rich, burnished sound appealed to this composer’s moody romanticism. He certainly wrote for the cello a beautifully idiomatic sonata.

The duo gave this sonata a powerful reading. Under normal circumstances, Wang is a serious and analytical musician – there is a sense of inevitability in his playing that suggests a sort of uncompromising logic. But on Wednesday evening, he dispensed with this logic and opted instead to wallow in Rachmaninoff’s romanticism. He played the “Andante” like an affecting song without words, and he approached the finale with a passion that he proudly wore on his sleeve.

Nies tossed off his part with his usual virtuosic flair. There are moments in the “Allegro scherzando” that call to mind Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly difficult Études-Tableaux for piano. Nies played this music as if was child’s play. He performed the finale with true symphonic sweep.

Obviously, the duo couldn’t end this evening without playing the obligatory encore –Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Wang and Nies set the bar pretty high on Wednesday night. The rest of this season’s performers had better start practicing.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.