Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Lugubrious Gondola, or Mindaugas Backus and friends

Mindaugas Backus, the most talented young Lithuanian cellist of his generation living in Lithuania, is a bit of an intellectual. He lives for his art, and I suspect his boredom threshold is low. You would probably not find him, like Rostropovich, Maisky or Geringas playing a Haydn Cello Concerto 20 times a year or more. Some years ago he studied in Manchester with Ralph Kirshbaum, then returned to the front desk of a local orchestra (boy, does that orchestra miss him!), but now he works freelance.

When he gives a concert, you can always expect to be challenged. With the string quartet Chordos which he plays in he is at the forefront of anything that's new, and often exciting, often playing music where the ink is still went on the page.

Not having checked the programming of tonight's concert, I assumed we'd have at least one radically new piece. Wrong. But the programming was nevertheless interesting and unusual - though sometimes I wonder if Mindaugas is doing his bank balance much good with that. With Daumantas Kirilauskas, a young Lithuanian pianist who accompanies all the higher level instrumentalists, and the actor Valentinas Masalskis, the first half of the concert they presented was hard work, frankly. Not to say depressing.

Three pieces for cello and piano by Liszt were not like the Liszt we know and love, of Hungarian Prelude fame, but from the end of his life, when he had got religion and taken holy orders. All slow pieces, they included the 'Lugubrious Gondola', 'The Cell in Nonnenwerth' and the 'Second Elegy'. The pieces were slow, very transparent, not virtuosic, and incredibly fragmented - kind of ideas floating off into the ether. They were interspersed with the never-ending mohologue of a guy about to commit suicide, from Mickiewicz's play 'Forefather's Eve'. Masalskis is a good actor, who did a memorable performance in the film 'Dievu Miskas' (the forest of the gods) about the Stutthof concentration camp (for politicals rather than Jews). This monologue was more of a miniplay for one, going through the usual (e)motions that, in plays, suicidal people go through - sadness, happy memories, despair - someone should do a sociological analysis of such speeches, including also Papageno's of the Magic Flute. But eventually it ended.

The second half included Schumann's Fantasiestuecke op 73, which I know so well, people must play them on viola and piano, too, though a viola professional of my acquaintance did not know them as such. I see they are more often programmed by clarinet (which is often equivalent to the viola). Finally we heard Frank Bridge's sonata in d-minor, also slightly hard work, especially for the cellist - bit of a monumental work, this, and it stops after the second movement (thankfully). I see he wrote it over 4 years. Seems promising, but I'd want to hear it again to get the hang of it.

Backus played beautifully, as ever, with lots of engagement, and was well partnered by Kirilauskas. Once or twice there was a moment of dodgy intonation, but overall he just showed the vast difference between him and some of the other players we have, with his total command and control over his instrument. He draws a wonderful sound out of his instrument; maybe he could have drawn slightly more in the Liszt pieces, but that's only quibbling. What I would like to see, though, is more communication with the audience - mainly he communes with his beloved cello. If I think of my favourite young cellist Giorgi Kharadze and the way he communicates with everyone around him, including each audience member individually, there's a bit of a gap. Shame, because Mindaugas is an outgoing person otherwise. Even with the pianist, not a look was exchanged. It would have been difficult, given the traditional Lithuanian position of him sitting in front to the cellist, kind of back to back with him. Might it be an idea to sit nearer the centre of the stage, in front of the piano so he can turn easily to the pianist for communication?

I wonder what he would sound like in something more well-known and traditional.....