November 21, 2004

Truls Mork is just a master cellist, proud-sounding

I have always wanted to play the cello—the instrument and its associations are both aesthetically and artistically alluring. Some of my considerations: the beautiful wooden body; its dark, earthy tone (which is said to be the closest to the human voice); and the fact that some of the most stunning music ever written has a place in its repertoire. However, I began playing the flute about seven years ago, and as much as I enjoy it, I sometimes can't help but wonder what would have happened had I taken up the cello. In an effort to ease my mind, I have lived vicariously through Jacqueline DuPré recordings, and tried—and more often than not, failed miserably—to produce the same kind of musical expression on the flute.

In a sense, the concert last Friday at Mandel Hall gave me a glimpse at what was truly possible on the cello—sustaining my dream of eventually mastering the instrument for a while longer. The cellist Truls Mork is an internationally renowned artist who has won prestigious instrumental competitions (such as the Naumberg and Tchaikovsky) and frequently works with major orchestras throughout the United States and Europe. This concert represented Mork's Chicago debut.

Though Romanticism was the dominant theme of the concert, Mork and his accompanist, Katherine Stott, gave each piece a distinctive character with their attentiveness to detail. Miaskovsky's Cello Sonata in D (Op. 12) opened the concert with its captivatingly lyrical main theme in the piano introduction. About a minute later, the cello enters, boldly restating the main theme and giving it shape, power, and direction. The duo performed the original 1911 version of this cello sonata (revised later by the composer in 1945), written after Miaskovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. It is a combination of the "Russian tradition"—with hints of Rachmaninoff and Borodin, as well as the French style. Its meandering lines lure the audience along each phrase with tantalizing allusions—an effect that requires careful attention to detail and extremely nuanced playing. Mork's warm, rich sound seized my attention from the onset and tempted me to follow the dark, ruminating lines to a place I have never been. Each crisp bow worked as a path into those unseen realms, and Stott's focused playing and supporting piano part made the journey ever so much more engaging. Stott prepared the cello's entrance by presenting the mood for a particular passage, and Mork just continued her ideas, expanding and developing them, drawing a fine distinction between imitation and discourse. Their playing was mesmeric. The cellist's full, rounded low register—the very core of his sound—emerged near the end of the last movement; he enunciated every note, and gave his built-up expectancy the raiment of substance. It was perhaps the most perfectly achieved climax I have heard, losing with the promise of more to come.

The rarely heard Miaskovsky Cello Sonata was followed by one of the most popular works in the cello repertoire, Prokofiev's Cello Sonata in C (Op. 11). Prokofiev's Sonata flaunts the cello's technical and musical versatility in terms of pure heroism. Prokofiev once told Mstislav Rostropovich that he was "fascinated with [his] crazy instrument" and later dedicated this cello sonata to him. For a composer who rarely presents programmatic explanations of his works, Prokofiev penned "Man. Proud-sounding" at the top of the Sonata to indicate the kind of self-assured attitude needed to approach this piece. Mork began the piece with a dark, velvety tone that he carried throughout the first movement.

Particularly interesting are the various stages of development and transformation that go from a delicate manipulation of the original theme to pure frenzy—in which both the piano and the cello imitate clanging, ominous bells. The ensemble executed these contrasts convincingly, supporting each other while maintaining their own artistic independence. The highlight of the sonata—perhaps even of the concert—was their interpretation of the second movement. It was like a joke that was so wickedly well told that the listener laughs both at the joke itself, and the way in which it was said. The movement was quintessential Prokofiev, with the playful, at times cynical, scherzo that he usually places in the second movement of his works. Upon listening to the gaudy articulations of simple pizzicatos and the ridiculous banter between the cello and piano (which, incidentally, the piano won), a wave of soft laughter swept through Mandel Hall. The performers executed the sonata superbly, with a brilliant eye for detail—and above all, the ability to make the details work in an overarching landscape.

Janacek's Pohadka (Fairy Tale) began the second half of the concert. It is a three-movement work inspired by a Russian story about the son of Czar Berendei, Ivan, who falls in love with the daughter of Katschei the Immortal. Together they help Ivan finish all his tasks so he can be freed from captivity. The closeness of the cello and piano part at times were very evocative of the story behind the piece. Mork and Stott phrased intimately with each other so that one would continue from a simple inflection where the other had left off and carry on the story. This is programmatic music performed at its best—music adding dimension and excitement to the story, which in turn gives the notes meaning.

The concert closed with Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor (Op. 65). Perhaps as a continuation of previous, more Romantic pieces of this concert, the performers tended to emote too heavily on melodic lines. Sometimes, all that the music needs is direction, as opposed to active management. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful performance, due to the virtue of the performers' technical brilliance.

After the concert, Truls Mork enthusiastically greeted audience members backstage and signed autographs. The consensus in that room was to invite Mr. Mork back to Chicago as soon as possible. He promised a visit next year in November, when he will be joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concerto. If you don't think you can wait that long, why not take up the cello yourself and be immediately touched by its sound, its beauty, its power of expression? I know I will.