By Lawrence Budmen

Some artists are shooting stars that burn bright and then fade from view. Others grow to be mature artists that attain that elusive standard of near perfection. Cellist Matt Haimovitz belongs in the latter category. Haimovitz returned to Miami for the first time in two decades on December 11for a stellar recital for Sunday Afternoons of Music at UM Gusman Concert Hall. 

While still a teenager, Haimovitz exhibited extraordinary talent. After signing with major management and a high profile record label, he seemed on the fast track to an international career. About a decade ago Haimovitz decided to follow a less conventional path. Today the thirty-something Haimovitz specializes in playing such non-traditional venues as rock clubs and coffee houses. He has become an ambassador for classical music who reaches out to youthful, uninitiated audiences. The cellist has also developed a healthy specialization in the work of exciting contemporary composers (including Gyorgy Ligeti and Osvaldo Golijov).

He opened his Miami recital with a bracing version of Schumann’s engaging Five Pieces in the Folk Style. His dark, molten lava cello tone brought poignant lyricism to the wordless lieder in the score’s third movement. Haimovitz was not afraid to suggest the brusque sound of Gypsy instruments.

Haimovitz’s performance of Brahms’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in e minor, Opus 38 was the stuff of which legends are made. From the first bars of the opening Allegro non troppo, Haimovitz’s richly expressive, amber scented tone imbued the music with incendiary passion. His ability to make each phrase flow effortlessly was the mark of a true artist. Haimovitz played with such consummate technique and interpretive freedom and spontaneity that he seemed to be creating the music as he played it. He sculpted the Allegretto quasi Menuetto with aristocratic elegance. The fugal writing of the Allegro finale had incredible clarity and power. The thrilling intensity of Haimovitz’s playing was stunning.

Pianist Robert Kulik was no mere accompanist. He was fully Haimovitz’s equal. Scintillating tonal color and shading flowed from Kulik’s keyboard. It was as if two patrician artists were thinking and playing as one. 

The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti is one of the great creative masters of our time. Haimovitz has championed his Sonata for Solo Cello. This long neglected score is a masterpiece. The opening Dialogo has the somber depth and spacious beauty of the Preludios in the cello suites of J.S. Bach. The concluding Capriccio and Presto is a virtuoso dazzler that flirts with (but never embraces) atonality. Haimovitz performed feats of daring bravura. The high flying harmonics of the Presto were dispatched with devil may care élan. 

Dimitri Shostakovich was one of the 20th century’s most distinctive compositional voices. His Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 40 was written for the great cellist Mistislav Rostropovich. Haimovitz’s raptly intense performance could match that Russian paragon and then some. His masterful shaping of the eerie death march that concludes the Allegro non troppo was deeply moving. He ripped into the Scherzo Allegro with torrents of blazing rhythmic propulsion. Kulik’s rapid fire piano fireworks perfectly captured Shostakovich’s quasi industrial musical utterance. The somber agony of the Largo is the heart of this score and Haimovitz endowed this sorrowful music with long spun vistas of rich tone and tremendous dramatic power. The concluding Allegro had demonic verve and cello-piano high jinks aplenty – a dazzling conclusion to a glorious performance! 

As an encore Haimovitz offered the beautiful Nigun from the Baal Shem Suite by Ernest Bloch. The rich tonal glow and heartfelt spirituality of this performance exemplified Haimovitz’s artistry. Bloch’s fervent Judaic music was a wonderful conclusion to a stunning concert by a great musician.

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