Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Roman & Žlabys

Joshua Roman, cello
Andrius Žlabys, piano
April 1, Virginia Commonwealth University

Solo recitalists typically receive boldface billing, with their accompanists in secondary font. Not so in the weekend’s performance by Joshua Roman, the widely lauded young American cellist, and his longtime recital partner, the Lithuanian-born pianist Andrius Žlabys, in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series.

Roman, whose focused, singing tone sounded perfectly suited to music ranging from Debussy and Beethoven to Janáček and Arvo Pärt, certainly rated star billing; but so did Žlabys, who has been performing with Roman since they were studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and has built his own career as a solo pianist.

A few measures into Debussy’s Sonata for cello and piano, which opened the program, it was clear that this would be an evening of deeply collaborative music-making. Žlabys proved to be the rare accompanist who, while always supportive, also creates and constructively inhabits his own musical space.

This was especially satisfying in Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 69, in which cello and piano are equal, consistently complementary voices. The sonata’s central scherzo, in which the piano plays a nearly orchestral role, found Roman and Žlabys at their collaborative best, feeding off each other’s energy and expressiveness in playful exchanges.

The duo’s phrasing and sensitivity to tone coloration brought contour and continuity to Janáček‘s “Pohádka” (“Fairy Tale”), emphasizing the folk-derived melodies and moderating the sometimes grating sonorities that characterize this early modern Czech composer’s style.

Roman and Žlabys made unusually lyrical work of the Debussy sonata, fleshing out the skeletal quality of this piece from late in the composer’s life, but without quite romanticizing it. The cellist crossed that line with vibrato-heavy lyricism in “Louange à l’Eternité de Jesus” (“Praise to the immortality of Jesus”) from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

The two musicians traced the long narrative and expressive arc of Pärt’s “Fratres” (“Brothers”), a quasi-minimalist piece that has gone through 17 (!) instrumental iterations since its original 1980 version for violin and piano. It sounded warmer, naturally, when played on cello, and Roman’s austere voicing of his part left more space for the piano’s partly supportive, partly contrasting voice.

Roman and Žlabys have been improvising – “noodling,” as the cellist put it – since their student days, but had not done so in public before this concert. Their “Only Once” improvisation suggested extensive exposure to impressionistic jazz by the likes of Pat Metheny and Bill Evans.

Astor Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango,” the climax of the program, was a virtuoso exercise for both players.