The Phillips Collection continued its top-flight concert series Sunday with an impressive cello recital by Matthew Zalkind. This young artist completed his formal studies last year at the University of Michigan and is a veteran of numerous competitions around the world. He was certainly fully in command of his blisteringly difficult repertoire of solo sonatas by Kodály and Ligeti and the Sixth Suite of Bach. Though marred by rhythm problems throughout, it was a strong outing.
Zalkind does not have a huge sound, but it is very clean, even on the bottom string, with lots of contrast in color and volume. His left hand darts around the instrument fearlessly and (with one exception) accurately. The sharply etched passagework in the Bach courante and gigue and the Ligeti capriccio was startling, surpassing that of many world-class cellists.
His interpretive style applies a wide range of tempos and counterintuitive dynamics to the music. The drawback is that he does it everywhere, as much in Bach as Ligeti. Leaving aside the obvious point that music from different eras should be approached differently, Zalkind’s cavalier attitude toward printed rhythms is going to get him in trouble when playing with piano or in an ensemble. Will he always be chafing to push and pull the music the same way?
The Bach allemande was devoid of any pulse whatsoever. Yes, it’s a dreamy, wandering piece, but it is also a slow dance, and Zalkind did not render a single measure of it in steady time. The marvelous control of chords in the gavottes and the virtuosity in the fast dances only partially compensated.
The Kodály withstood this approach much better, though the Adagio was almost unrecognizable in spots, and the high-register passages in the first movement drifted badly off pitch. The performance overall was a tour de force of athleticism and instrumental control, but it came at the expense of the composer’s carefully notated rhythms.
Los Angeles composer Mark Summer’s “Julie-O” was a charming ending to the afternoon.
Battey is a freelance writer.