Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan captivates at Strathmore Mansion

The Strathmore Mansion on Thursday was chock full of patrons (including cellists and other string players) to hear the 23-year-old Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan give a phenomenal account of some musical thrillers by Cesar Franck, Frederic Chopin, Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich. Franck’s late Sonata in A, the evening’s opener, and Shostakovich’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, call on every dimension of a performer’s technique and expressive means. Hakhnazaryan impresses you with a degree of freedom that comes hard-won from discipline of the highest order. And he had a brilliant pianist, Noreen Cassidy-Polera, to support that level of artistry.

The cellist won first prize at last year’s International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He is already a seasoned performer in first-rate concert halls with major orchestras around the world.

Hakhnazaryan’s talent was obvious from the opening phrase of Franck’s late Sonata (originally for violin). Whether pianissimo or triple forte, his bow was ever emphatic, and his emotive power and subjective intensity captured the listener immediately, never letting go. The whole thrust of the piece — especially the third movement — is a monumental fantasia, requiring the cellist to hurl through its wavering thematic transformations while seeming to improvise. (Franck himself was a master organist famed for his improvisations.)

Shostakovich’s Op. 40 demands control and fortitude from both players. On Thursday it was all there with both players evenly matched. Op. 40 is a marvel of alternating passages of sublime, liquid lyricism with depths of astringent harmony and textures. Throughout the sonata, the musicians underscored the music’s overwhelming sense of inevitability. This was most obviously felt in the driving pulse of the outer Allegros and most subtly in the Largo, charging forward with the epic breadth of the Russian steppes. The finale’s jaunty contrapuntal interplay erupted into a blazing firestorm, as if endlessly toying with a listener’s expectations.

Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3, and Rostropovich’s Humoresque, Op. 5, aren’t simply display pieces, though they both leave the performers to tackle every technical trick of the trade at a whirlwind pace.

Hakhnazaryan’s two blazing encores weren’t enough for the audience, who clamored for more.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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