Something big happens to painting in the early years of the 20th century: representational art, or art that depicts actual things — objects, people, physical reality — begins to loosen the imperious grip it has held on the subject matter available to artists for millennia. How different artists (and countries) negotiate the new possibilities of form and content becomes a central narrative of the 1900s.
Music isn’t painting, but what happens in the visual arts offers a useful, if imperfect, cognate to what takes place in music during the same period, as the syntax of tonality likewise began to change, to become more complex, or to break down entirely.
On Saturday evening, the remarkable Kanneh-Mason duo, siblings from England, laid out an illuminating guided tour of this musical evolution in cello sonatas from England and Soviet Russia.
Frank Bridge’s rarely heard two-movement sonata largely echoes and affirms the music of the 19th century — tonal, lyrical, dramatic, using traditional formal models. To these older materials, however, the work adds more adventurous harmonies and stretches the older sonata form. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason set the twin outlooks of the piece — new and old — into clear and dramatic relief, imbuing themes and registers with identity and direction. The solemn second movement (preceded by a striking, long pause) becomes gradually, almost imperceptibly pastoral, showing the work’s firm roots in the English tradition of Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams.
Sadly, Bridge is known by today’s audiences less for his own music than for his role as the mentor of Benjamin Britten. While Britten’s fame rests principally on orchestral and stage works, his sonata for cello and piano is a masterfully wrought treatise on the topic of musical historicity and models: themes in the first movement are rhetorically distinct — contrasting brutal, disjunct and barely tonal, with sanguine, diatonic optimism.
The ending of the first movement makes clear Britten’s awareness of this aesthetic dichotomy, with a cello glissando ascent through the harmonic series, an acoustic phenomenon literally at the core of western ideas of musical consonance and harmony. These seemingly contradictory worldviews were played by the cellist with an intensity and sensitivity to sonic detail.
No less impressive was pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, who drew melodic lines with clarity and purpose. The Kanneh-Mason duo share an uncommon unity on the stage, which came out especially in the scherzo, whose pizzicati materials pay homage to similar movements in quartets by Ravel and Bartok, and whose demanding percussive effects in the cello were matched by seemingly effortless fluid scalar runs in the piano. The finale is whirling and visceral, with each player developing their own materials until the very end, then meeting in a jarring and breathless unison passage.
The programming trajectory of the first half of the evening from teacher to student was reversed in the second half, beginning with Karen Khachaturian’s cello sonata from 1966. Among numerous excellent points made in Michael Gerdes’ pre-concert talk, the audience was gently informed that this is not that Khachaturian — that is, not Aram, the composer of the “Sabre Dance,” but his nephew. Though of Armenian descent, Khachaturian studied in Moscow, under Shostakovich. This surprising work, hardly a student piece, shows the Eastern-European sensibility in creating new sounds and forms: motoric rhythms, percussive bow techniques (played with vigor and mastery by Sheku Kanneh-Mason), and an extraordinarily original harmonic language.
The first movement is taut and menacing, using the material modularity we associate with Stravinsky: angular and jagged ostinatos recur, jostling each other out of the way as the music tumbles forward. The pianist showed great maturity in her ability to control dramatic that revealed every harmonic nuance. The third movement scherzo is apocalyptic; crashing, thunderous chords are used as a merciless refrain in a danse macabre. These two players have a gift for pushing the music ever forward — playing almost imperceptibly ahead of the pulse, giving the quality of impending calamity. Moments of silence in the piece were literally that the duo imposed a seriousness onto this music that was palpable in the collectively held breath of the entire house even in the gripping finale.
Shostakovich’s Op. 40 sonata was written in 1934, the year of his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” An attack leveled against that work in Pravda over a year later (which accused Shostakovich of bourgeois formalism and birthed the infamous “Muddle instead of music” epithet) nearly ended his career. Yet the cello sonata shows his concurrent predilection for conservative neoclassicism. Roaming, broad and lyrical, only occasionally does the piece descend into the dark sardonicism always associated with Shostakovich’s music. These perturbations of gloomy sarcasm were expertly conveyed by the Kenneh-Masons. This is clearly a work, and a music, they understand with surprisingly seasoned maturity. Over the course of the five movements, Shostakovich begins to rely on what were to become stock materials for him, and it sounds like it: the harmonic glissandi in the spinning folk-dance border on silliness, and the rondo theme, set up as a comic foil, raises questions about what this work is supposed to mean. However, these two young musicians brought an earnestness of affect and a dazzling technique to this familiar piece.
The Baker-Baum Concert hall is a captivating venue, perhaps San Diego’s prettiest concert space. Wood and blue light combine to create a Prairie-style Saint-Chapelle. The hall is open, airy and intimate; the acoustics are immediate and even. The Kenneh-Masons dedication to the sound of the music they play, a concern that unified all the works on the program, found a perfect home here.
Schulze is a freelance writer.