The "Cello Sonata in C Major," Opus 119 by Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) was composed during the composer's darkest hour. Once the enfant terrible of 20th century Russian music, Prokofiev had made a graceful transition to tonal, conservative yet inspired musical creations. The composer's new found acclaim as a cultural hero of the Soviet Union was brought to an abrupt halt in 1948 when cultural bureaucrat Andrei Zhdanov denounced Prokofiev (along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Miaskovsky) for creating works that were "too cosmopolitan and formalist." This was followed by an unofficial ban on performances of Prokofiev's music. Despite this dire situation, the composer's creative imagination was as strong as ever and he continued to compose - even without the possibility of public performance. When the composer attended a 1949 concert at which the brilliant cellist Mistislav Rostropovich played Miaskovsky's "Cello Sonata No.2," Prokofiev was inspired to create a work for Rostropovich. The result was the Opus 119 Sonata which was given an impassioned performance by the dynamic American cellist William DeRosa on January 9 at UM Gusman Concert Hall - the virtuosic climax of a recital for Sunday Afternoons of Music. 

The artistic integrity and courage of Rostropovich and the piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter in arranging for the 1950 premiere of Prokofiev's Cello Sonata (despite Zhdanov's denouncement) can not be underestimated. (The following year the same duo would bring about the premiere of the composer's last large scale orchestral work - the "Sinfonia Concertante" for Cello and Orchestra. That occasion would mark Richter's only public appearance as an orchestral conductor.) For these two remarkable artists Prokofiev composed a work of quiet introspection - an emotional journey from darkness to light. A somber, memorable chorale melody opens the first movement Andante grave. Much of the writing is in the cello's dark lower register. Beneath the music's cerebral formalism there are strongly felt emotions - melancholy and passionate. The scherzo moderato is marked by plucked strings and vigorous piano chords. A central Andante dolce episode, however, is remarkably poignant and deeply Russian. In the concluding Allegro ma non troppo a theme from the first movement is transformed into an exhilarating anthem that heralds the triumph of the creative spirit! Marked by richly sonorous cello writing and daunting pianistic pyrotechnics, this score is a ruminative, elegiac swan song. The work of a genius!
William DeRosa plays a magnificent 1739 Montagana cello. With DeRosa's superb playing, the instrument's rich, burnished tone resonates in sound waves of dark velvet. Prokofiev's elegiac sonata was the perfect vehicle for DeRosa's formidable talents. From the first richly expressive tones of the opening chorale melody, DeRosa played with energy, dynamic musicianship and tremendous fervor. He brought vigor to the Scherzo and dramatic yearning to the Andante dolce episode. In the finale, DeRosa's cello sang heroically. DeRosa captured that sense of inexorable momentum that is the very essence of the music. In no small way DeRosa made this Prokofiev-Rostropovich score his own. Pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera provided strong support - particularly in the witty Moderato and in the cascading chords of the climactic coda. A stellar performance of an inspired song of twilight! 

While Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote more than 100 chamber music works, only two dozen survived his rigorous self criticism. The "Cello Sonata No.1 in E Minor," Opus 38 is his first extant duo-sonata. This justly popular work is pure Brahms - grandly Romantic, a treasure trove of beautiful thematic material, reverential to the past; yet strikingly innovative. DeRosa's sonorous cello tone embraced the opening bars of the Allegro ma non troppo first movement. The dark, restrained character of the music was given an expressive, subtly delineated performance. DeRosa traced the elegant embroidery of the Allegretto quasi Menuetto with delicacy and élan. His gleaming tone brought the passion of the trio to vibrant life. (This music owes much to the Magyar yearning of Brahms's "Hungarian Dances.") In the Allegro finale Brahms pays tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with an elaborate three part fugue. DeRosa's brilliant, sparkling realization of this contrapuntal masterpiece was exhilarating! Ms. Cassidy-Polera did not consistently match DeRosa's energy and virtuosity in this Brahms sonata. Her phrasing of the beautiful second subject of the first movement was strangely restrained and dispassionate. At times she was over emphatic - the balance between piano and cello was not always ideal. 

Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966) was one of the 20th century's great cellists. The Spanish virtuoso was the legendary Pablo Casals's first pupil. Cassado was also a talented composer who contributed important scores to the contemporary cello repertoire (including a Cello Concerto in D Minor that was dedicated to Casals). Cassado studied composition with Maurice Ravel and Manuel De Falla - giants of Parisian musical life in the early years of the last century. In 1928 Cassado wrote his "Suite for Solo Cello" - a tribute to J.S. Bach and Casals, Cassado's mentor. (It was Casals who introduced Bach's bracing, innovative Cello Suites to 20th century audiences). This unique work combines Baroque formality, Latin color and austerity, and modern harmonics in a heady virtuosic brew. DeRosa's aristocratic phrasing made the opening Preludio both riveting and stately. His dazzling bowing and lightness of touch made the Sardana-danza truly sparkle. The concluding Intermezzo e danza had rapid fire articulation and incredible agility. DeRosa captured the fiery Latin rhythms with driving intensity. A dazzling performance of an important vignette by one of the cello's greatest exponents! 

The concert opened with Beethoven's rarely heard 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel's "Judas Maccabaus." (The theme is the chorale "Hail the Conquering Hero." Sir Henry Wood used the same theme in his "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" - a perennial piece on the annual Last Night of the Proms concert on the BBC.) This skillfully crafted work alternates lyrical and brilliantly virtuosic episodes in a cello-piano tour de force. - a small gem by one of the giants of Western culture. Ms. Cassidy- Polera played the important piano line with sensitivity and subtly nuanced elegance. DeRosa brought brio and energetic brilliance to this lively score. At the concert's conclusion, DeRosa and Cassidy-Polera offered Pablo Casals's arrangement of the Catalan folk song "Song of the Birds" as an encore. DeRosa dedicated their performance to the victims of the recent Asian tsunami. The gleaming tone and passion of DeRosa's playing of this cello anthem was deeply moving. At the music's conclusion the stage lights faded to black - a powerful memorial.

William DeRosa is one of America's finest cellists. He offered an admirably rigorous, uncompromising program of serious cello works. His marvelous realization of Prokofiev's Cello Sonata was a singular event - a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit!

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