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On the Twentieth Century
Tamás Varga with Frankly Music.

Cellist Tamás Varga

Twentieth-Century art music wasn’t all about radical experimentation and breaking the rules. That could have been the lesson of Tamás Varga’s three cello selections at Frankly Music’s concert Monday night at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Varga—the principal cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic—opened the program with three pieces for solo cello, and all showed both innovation and a respectful homage to tradition. Even in the case of a modernist pioneer like György Ligeti, whose Sonata for Solo Cello opened the program. It’s an early work, but Ligeti’s yen for innovation was apparent from the opening moments, a plucked three-note chord glissando that returns as a motif again and again, uniting two movements that were composed five years apart.

Jaques Ibert’s short Ghirlarzana was next, a piece of introspective lyricism, but one with an obvious modern sense of melody, complete with some unorthodox double stops that punctuated the graceful melody lines.

Hans Gál’s Sonata for Solo Cello was the biggest surprise of the evening, a piece of unabashed romantic feeling composed in 1982 (when the composer was 92 years old). At times, its light-hearted playfulness resembled a classic 19th-century ballet score. The more angular themes of the third movement were more in tune with the 20th century conventions, but this is a piece that captivates through old-fashioned charm.

Varga played these pieces with a lovely, front-and-center tone the was as warm as it was assertive. His intonation was perfect, and his phrasing was sensitive and intelligent.

Frank Almond and pianist Stephen Beus joined Varga in the second half of the concert, playing Brahms’ Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87, a piece Almond persuasively described as one of the greatest piano trios ever written. The music made a compelling case as well. Beautiful interplay between the violin and cello, tossing Brahms’ rich melodies back and forth, characterized all four movements. Beus was a sensitive accompanist, even though the sound of the piano could have been brighter (it seemed unusually muted, possibly due to its placement too far back on the Bader Recital Hall). By the time the rollicking fourth movement ended, you could hear how all of the 20th-century composers on the program owed much to the great romantic master.

The program repeats at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan.15.

(photo by PhotoJong)

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