Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; Alexander Melnikov, piano: Works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Webern, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, Playhouse and Orpheum Annex, January 21 and 22, 2017.

There are few more insightful artists of their generation than Montreal-born cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov.  They have now collaborated for over a decade, typically in partnership with equally-exalted violinist Isabelle Faust.  Each has given distinguished concerts here previously. For Harmonia Mundi, the group has recorded piano trios of Beethoven and Schumann, Faust and Melnikov have combined for a wondrous integral set of Beethoven Violin Sonatas (also performed here), Queyras has joined the pianist for the Complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, and himself has added a widely-praised account of Bach’s Complete Cello Suites. In addition to their keen intelligence, one thing that makes the playing of these artists distinctive is the way they bridge modern and authentic traditions, frequently seeking scaled-down textures and eschewing vibrato.

This 3-concert ‘Winterlude’ was a true highlight of the Vancouver concert season thus far, featuring playing of quite extraordinary sensitivity. Queyras indeed performed the full six Cello Suites of Bach at one sitting, collaborated with Melnikov in Beethoven and Chopin Cello Sonatas, while the pianist contributed a solo recital of Rachmaninoff and Debussy.

Jean-Guihen Queyras has his own ideas about tempo and articulation in the Bach Suites and, while some of them are not standard, they all seem to bring extra illumination and cohesion to the music. In fact, I cannot remember witnessing a more concentrated and involving traversal of these Everests of the repertoire. One factor may have been the use of an intimate venue (the Orpheum Annex) with particularly faithful acoustics – and having the lights set low.  The supreme ingredient though was Queyras’ splendid appreciation of how each Suite unfolds as a mix of buoyancy and searching deliberation, combined with his imaginative control of shading and dynamics. There was a real freshness and feeling here, and many interesting corners were explored. 

I was taken with how well each Praeludium set down a ‘statement’ of sorts, finding just the right mix of structural complexity, nobility and repose to cue the remainder of the work. Queyras always managed to capture both their lyrical flow and resolute determination. The cellist’s agility at the top of the instrument’s register immediately impressed but, make no mistake, his bottom was just as good – and subtle too.  It was a lithe flexibility that typically stood out, always finding a firm rhythmic anchor but never courting the heavyweight. The dances were alertly sprung and nicely varied throughout, and their ruminative musings were not ignored.  The Sarabandes naturally dug deeper, and the cellist’s searching inquiries plus his pianissimo shading of the lower notes was fully suspending.  The closing Gigues typically found a buoyant natural motion and were often delivered with shades of joy poking out.  It is impossible to mention all the felicities in these traversals but, if pushed, I probably enjoyed the Second, Third, and the Fifth Suites most overall.  Of the remaining three, it was perhaps only the Fourth Suite that might have had moments of less than pristine concentration.  But there is little in it: this was a unique experience that added up with life-enhancing power.

The duo concert maintained this standard of excellence. The reading of the famous Beethoven Cello Sonata, Op. 69 was striking in its sparse, vibrato-less textures, starting literally ‘in the mists’, the cellist’s soft whispers of phrase initially coaxed forward – like fine silk -- through Melnikov’s delicate right hand figurations.  This texture allowed the romantic thrust of the work to come out with great spontaneity and feeling when it arrived, then retreating again to a complex mosaic of flickering and tender half shades. With the addition of a repeat, the opening Allegro was as long and intriguing a journey as I have ever encountered, evincing a most sensitive ‘conversation’ and riveting in its concentration. The Scherzo had a lovely fluidity, firmly anchored but still finding both a thoughtful and will-o-wisp quality. Time literally stood still in the Adagio, the cellist’s phrases fragmented and so soft, only to usher in a truly playful, spring-like finale, itself eventually finding a rare sense of freedom and elation. There was something quite unique about the feeling and ardour generated when Queyras chose to open out his expression, as well as in Melnikov’s structural certainty and imagination in etching the music’s counter-melodies.  Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin recently gave us a striking but somewhat more ardent traversal (as part of a complete ‘authentic’ cycle), yet I think I enjoyed Queyras and Melnikov as much or more.  Perhaps this current reading was just more magical.

Many of the same principles were applied to the often-denigrated Chopin Sonata, thinning it down somewhat, bringing out its colours with greater clarity while still maintaining its strength of feeling. All the yearning passion and sense of burden was present in the long opening Allegro, yet the imaginative interaction between the artists brought out further rhapsodic qualities and subtle half-lights. The movement seemed more coherent than usual. The ‘sailing’ theme of the Scherzo had a lovely freedom, the fragility of the Largo was fully mined (Queyras’ bow control in the softest passages was disarming), while the finale yielded a feast of variety in shading and motion, always bringing out the sense of purpose in the writing.  I cannot think of a better performance.  At the risk of being too effusive, I would probably say the same about the accompanying Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Five Pieces in the Popular Style) which explored the intimacy, melancholy, joy and romance of these little pieces in a most fetching way.

While Alexander Melnikov finds such imagination and freedom in his chamber music collaborations, it always intrigues me that he can become more rigid and scrupulously conscientious when playing by himself.  When tackling both romantic and modern repertoire, Melnikov can certainly bring rich hues, volcanic strength, and the most fleet-fingered passage work from his instrument, but his approach appears noticeably more controlled, and perhaps a little abstract.  The pianist sometimes reminds me of a surgeon, slicing out ‘blocks’ of sound and colour with utmost care, with the downside that he does not always find full lyrical flow or cohesion.  This was true to some extent in both Rachmaninoff’s Chopin Variations and Corelli Variations: many felicities in the individual pieces were chiseled out, but they did not really add up to an organic emotional whole.  In the former, the pianist often found an interesting contrapuntal complexity in the writing but still remained at one remove from both the vulnerable fragrances of Chopin’s world and the rhapsodic rhythmic push of Rachmaninoff (which is surprising, since Melnikov is Russian). 

I enjoyed the Debussy Preludes, Book II more: the pianist’s precision and control paid stronger dividends, and some degree of abstractness is clearly not out of place.  Many pieces were very sharply etched indeed, and worked convincingly on their own terms. Nonetheless, while I would never wish to consign this masterpiece back to its traditional ‘haze’, there were also times where I felt a lack of integrating Gallic feeling: its glimpses of ease and whimsy, and sense of overall atmosphere.  By any standards, this was a rewarding recital, but it was the other two concerts that made this little festival so special.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017