By Lawrence Budmen

The music of Dimitri Shostakovich has always been characterized by a duality of musical expression. There is always instrumental brilliance and inventiveness that seems to overflow with the sheer joy of musical creation. At the same time, Shostakovich's music is full of dark, foreboding visions that verge on the apocalyptic. The composer's traumatic experiences during the Stalinist era very much influenced his artistic vision. His "Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor," Opus 40 encapsulates Shostakovich's musical aesthetic on a chamber scale. The work received an illuminating performance by cellist Antonio Menesis and pianist Luiz Fernando Benedini (both Brazilian born artists) on October 10, 2002 at the UM Gusman Concert Hall as part of Festival Miami's mini-series "Festival Brazil."

Menesis is a formidable cello virtuoso, who commands his instrument with absolute mastery. His agility in the instrument's taxing upper register is astonishing. He produces a dark and lustrous tone, which is wedded to a probing musical intellect. In the Shostakovich sonata, his impeccable technique and attention to minute nuances and subtle variations of musical texture produced a performance replete with incendiary drama and passion. There was a burning inner fire in the opening movement that gave way to a grimly eloquent reading of the death march that forms the movement's conclusion. The second movement was all lightness and brio. The solo chaconne had gravity and depth, while the ironic wit of the finale had just the right sense of weight. The contrasting middle section had an almost vocal declamation. Benedini was a fully active partner in the musical dialog that forms the work's inner core. His playing was rhythmically riveting. The octave leaps and pyrotechnics were boldly dispatched with virtuoso panache. The musical rapport between the artists was total. The result was a great performance of a benchmark of the 20th century sonata repertoire! 

Menesis, a gold medal winner of the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, studied with the Italian cellist and conductor Antonio Janigro. (He is now a member of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio.) Indeed there is an Italianate lightness in his bowing technique, which was most impressively displayed in his performance of Mendelssohn's "Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major," Opus 58. From beginning of this masterpiece of musical romanticism, he played with heartfelt intensity and feverish inner drive. His phrasing of the second theme had an aristocratic nobility. The Scherzo was all airiness with a wonderful sense of the space between the notes. There was romantic ardor in the spring song of the slow movement, while the finale was filled with verve and insouciance and was taken at a daringly fast tempo. Here Benedini's pianistic brilliance and command of the witty turns of musical phrase were awesome.

Cello transcriptions of three pieces from "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2" by Heitor Villa-Lobos were musically insightful. It was Bach's unaccompanied cello suites that inspired Villa-Lobos to attempt a Brazilian equivalent. Here, without the opulent orchestral elaboration, one could hear how closely the composer adhered to Bach's austere cello writing. The contrasting Brazilian folk rhythms were even more delightful in this version. Menesis and Benedini played the music with an idiomatic understanding to the manner born. There was a real sense of fun in their performance (i.e. Menesis's imitation of a choo-choo train on his cello.

Several pieces by Menesis's former orchestral colleague and mentor J. Guerra Vicente were lovely period vignettes. "Cenas Cariocas" ("Scenes from Rio") and "Valsa Seresteira" ("Serenade Waltz") sounded like a Brazilian Fritz Kreisler. The music was played with loving, schmaltzy flair.

As an encore the artists offered the slow movement of "Sonata for Cello and Piano," Opus 19 by Rachmaninoff. The haunting melody that is this music's principal theme was beautifully delineated. Menesis brought operatic lyricism to the long , arching musical line. Benedini played Rachmaninoff's rhapsodic music with intense passion. This beautiful work brought a highly satisfying conclusion to a truly festive concert by two outstanding musicians! 

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