Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta made her D.C. recital debut Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater but was upstaged musically by her pianist, Alessio Bax.
Other than the last piece, a show-off vehicle for the cellist by Adrien Servais, the program featured piano-heavy repertoire; sonatas by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, and the Schumann Fantasy Pieces. From the first bars of the Schumann, Bax’s musical imagination took wing, and the expressive counterpoint between the instruments became the focus, rather than the cello line. In phrase after phrase, he sculpted lines of logic and elegance, which too often the cello couldn’t match. In the Mendelssohn Sonata in D and the slow movement from the Rachmaninoff sonata played as an encore, Bax’s scene-stealing virtuosity was all the more impressive because he still kept his sound proportional to his partner — with the piano lid fully raised. I very much hope the presenter (the Washington Performing Arts Society) brings him back for a solo concert, and soon.
Gabetta’s basic problem is an inability to produce sustained musical lines in either hand; she compensates for a smallish sound by accenting too many bow-changes and adding forceful but useless punctuation with her head. The knuckles of her left hand frequently collapse, like a student’s, and thus the vibrato sounds different on each finger, though it’s intermittent anyway. All of this adds up to music-making which consists of staged “events” rather than drawing of long lines — pushing and pulling each phrase about, striking poses, tarting everything up. In the “Adagio” of the Mendelssohn, the composer’s dignified Jewish cantor became a coquettish girl who couldn’t utter a serious thought. The “Largo” from the Shostakovich sonata vacillated between grating and boring because of Gabetta’s lack of tonal imagination.
On the plus side, she can play with fleetness and flair in material that is less musically demanding. The second movement of the Shostakovich was jazzy and fun, and the virtuoso passage-work in the Servais came off with genuine pizzazz. With good looks and a winning stage presence, Gabetta has a burgeoning career; one hopes she will sort out her shortcomings so that it may hold up in the long run.
Battey is a freelance writer.