Cellist Queyras offers an elegant, genuinely solo recital at Logan Center

Wed Oct 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm

By Ralph Boyd

Jean-Guihen Queyras performed music for solo cello Tuesday night at the Logan Center in the University of Chicago Presents series.
Jean-Guihen Queyras performed music for solo cello Tuesday night at the Logan Center in the University of Chicago Presents series.

The program presented by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras Tuesday night at the Logan Center in Hyde Park was unusual in that it consisted of only unaccompanied works. This is a risky choice since after the six Bach suites there is not much material in that repertoire until the twentieth century. Queyras’s recital was not filled out with novelties or transcriptions but concentrated on substantial works for solo cello.

The program, presented by the University of Chicago Presents as part of its Britten Festival, started with the Bach Suite No. 1 in G major. Of the six movements the first, Praeludium, is perhaps the most familiar of all the unaccompanied cello repertoire. The rest of the movements are stylized Baroque dances. Queyras played them all with understated elegance.

Benjamin Britten had a close personal and professional relationship with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and composed three solo suites for him. The Suite No. 1 has nine titled movements and a formidable array of technical and musical challenges come with each one. The dynamics, from a whisper to a roar, are an important part of the musical construction. The sense of the piece can be lost without them, particularly in the first five movements. The final four harken back to Britten’s prewar style and even with the technical demands felt more immediate.

The French cellist was certainly up to all challenges, demonstrating a formidable left-hand technique and an effortless control of the bow that let him achieve the necessary subtleties. The soloist provided great pleasure in presenting such a virtuosic performance of such intensely demanding music.

After intermission Queyras performed the Solo Cello Sonata of Zoltan Kodaly. Cast in three movements, the sonata is very much in the romantic tradition, with the performer challenged to be both soloist and de facto accompanist.

The score calls for the soloist to tune the two lower strings down a half step but, unlike the Baroque scordatura technique, it is used to extend the harmonic possibilities not to make things easier. The final movement has most of the folk music elements we associate with Kodaly. It also is the most difficult music, with the performer called upon to do almost every virtuoso trick in the book and at some very fast tempi.

There were certain sections in the highest register in which Queyras’s sound emerged cleanly but with a hard tone, seeming at times not quite warm or expansive enough for this music. This was a minor quibble since the cellist’s performance was as musically and technically excellent as the rest of the program.

Queyras offered an encore of the first movement of Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher by Henri Dutilleux. Part of a series written by various composers to honor the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Dutilleux used the letter of the conductor’s name as the musical theme. Queyras introduced the piece and spoke fondly of the composer, who died this past May at age 97.

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