By Lawrence Budmen

The brooding melancholy that is so characteristic of Russian music finds its most expressive voice in the darkly ruminative sounds of the cello. The large repertoire of works for this instrument by Russian composers of the last century was inspired, in part, by two great cellists - Mistislav Rostropovich and Daniel Shafran. Yet, in virtually every case, the burnished glow of the cello's deep toned sound has brought out the best in Russia's creative artists. The final concert of the Close Encounters with Music series (subtitled "A La Russe") on April 28 at the Amaturo Theater in Fort Lauderdale featured three cello sonatas by Russian composers from the first half of the 20th century. The music on this concert also dealt with the various stages of artists in exile - pending, permanent, and past.

The "Sonata in G Minor," Opus 19 from 1901 represents this composer at his most haunting and anguished. This is music that comes from deep within the Russian soul. The score abounds with inspired melodies. Was there any other Russian composer after Tchaikovsky who could pen such richly romantic themes? The cello writing is at once virtuosic and soulful. The piano acts not as an accompanying instrument, but as a full partner. The brilliant pianistic flourishes are an integral part of the musical fabric and evidence of Rachmaninoff's own formidable powers at the keyboard. (After Rachmaninoff went into exile in America following the revolution, he composed only five works during the remaining quarter century of his life.) Cellist Yehuda Hanani has long been an innovative programmer and erudite host and commentator of the Close Encounters series. He has rarely presented a solo cello recital on the series. This sonata program proved to be a real musical treat. The Rachmaninoff sonata could have been written for Hanani. His dark hued, resonant tone, protean musicianship, and deeply emotional penetration of the score were hallmarks of a memorable performance. Hanani seemed to feel the music's sadness and passion and brought his musical heart and soul to every bar of this cello masterpiece. The Andante sang as a lament for Russia's past (both historical and musical). The concluding Allegro mosso was played with verve and brilliance. Hanani brought real passion and intensity to the movement's glorious second theme. His phrasing was marked by an aristocratic elegance that delineated the essence of Rachmaninoff's romantic idiom. Pianist James Tocco was Hanani's fiery keyboard partner. Tocco is Distinguished Professor of Chamber Music at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Several seasons ago he gave a spellbinding performance of Busoni's monumental, almost unplayable "Piano Concerto" with conductor James Conlon and the New World Symphony. Here Tocco was no less impressive. His dazzling arpeggios and wonderfully sensitive coloration of the keyboard line were the mark of a patrician artist. While few performances are definitive, this one will remain etched in the memory for the artists' highly animated, passionate response to the composer's musical discourse.

Igor Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne" (1932) is a reworking of a violin transcription of music from the composer's ballet score "Pulcinella." Stravinsky spins themes from the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolessi into his own lean textured neo-classicism. After he went into exile in Europe and America, Stravinsky became less Russian and more cosmopolitan. "Suite Italienne" is an ebullient display piece and Hanani and Tocco gave it a bristling, whirlwind performance. Hanani tossed off the double stops and harmonics of the third movement with verve and brio. His slides in the Serenata and Minuetto were ear catching and perfectly captured the music's infectious humor. The Finale was all cello-piano fireworks. Here was an effervescent musical carnival presented with a sense of fun and wit- a nearly perfect performance.

The opening "Sonata in C," Opus119 by Sergei Prokofiev dates from 1949 near the end of the composer's life. After Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1936, his initial welcome was followed by several setbacks from the Soviet Union's musical bureaucrats, who distrusted the composer's sophisticated musical approach and his embrace of Western modernism. His later works are more conservative than the scores that won him world wide acclaim. For this reason and the political history around them, these late works have been unfairly dismissed. Prokofiev never lost his mastery of form or his gift for creating spontaneous melodies that seem to come from deep within the Russian spirit. The "Sonata in C" is a superbly written vignette. It is filled with folkloric references and themes that look back to Tchaikovsky - all dispensed with a wry commentary that is pure Prokofiev. Hanani and Tocco played with brilliance and elegance. The music and the performance brought both a wistful tear and a smile.

Prokofiev and Stravinsky both prospered artistically in exile, while Rachmaninoff seemed to lose some of his creative spirit. In each case, the cello was a voice that told of the creative artists' inner feelings. Yehuda Hanani illuminated the musical soul behind their notes - a one of a kind close encounter with genius.

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