Alexander Chaushian at the Seed

By John Shakespeare Dyson | February 5, 2020

The latest in the Istanbul Recitals series at The Seed, the concert hall attached to the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan, featured a solo cellist – quite a departure from the usual run of pianists, pianists and more pianists. Ms Nazan Ceylan, the co-organiser (with Mr Mehmet Şükûn) of these events, has in the past told me that if they attempt to vary the programme by engaging performers on other instruments, nobody comes. So I was pleased to see the hall more than half full, even if the quality of the music justified a much higher attendance.

The performer on January 18 was Alexander Chaushian, born into a musical family in Yerevan, Armenia in 1977. He received his first tuition from his grandfather, then attended the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, where his teacher was Melissa Phelps. Following this, he went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and here he received tuition from Oleg Kogan. (It came as no surprise to me to learn that Oleg Kogan is a graduate of the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow, and that in 1989 he won the All Soviet Union Cello Competition.) From 2000 to 2002 Mr Chaushian held a fellowship at the Royal Academy of Music as a member of the Kempf Trio. Finally, he went off to the Hochschule für Musik ‘Hanns Eisler’ in Berlin, where he pursued advanced studies – first with the late Boris Pergamenschikiow, then with David Geringas, graduating with distinction in 2005. (Both of these master cellists, by the way, are names to conjure with.)

Mr Chaushian subsequently won awards at the 12th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2002, and at the ARD International Competition in Munich in 2005. He now teaches the cello at the Royal College of Music. His current duet partner is the Leningrad-trained pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.

I was interested to see that one of the awards he has received is named after Pierre Fournier (1906-86), known as the ‘Aristocrat of the Cello’, whom I heard play at the Atatürk Cultural Centre in the early 1980s. After a somewhat routine performance, which included a Mendelssohn sonata for cello and piano, Fournier played a piece from the Bach solo cello suites as his encore. Suddenly his playing came alive, and my companions and I were moved almost to tears. We moaned with pleasure.

The first item on Alexander Chaushian’s programme in Emirgan was Bach’s Suite No 1 in G major, BWV 1007. The suite consists of seven movements; apart from the first (the ‘Prelude), each of the others bears the rhythmic signature of a dance – ‘Allemande’, ‘Courante’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Minuets I and II’, and ‘Gigue’. It took the soloist some time to recover from an initial shakiness, and I noticed a creak or two in the ‘Courante’); one does not know how recently his journey to Istanbul had finished, of course, and what contretemps he had encountered on the way. By the fourth movement (the ‘Sarabande’), however, he seemed to be taxiing along quite confidently, and by the fifth (the first ‘Minuet’) he was well and truly airborne. I have to say that the Prelude was played quite fast, which I thought a pity: this piece is capable of being played in a manner that communicates a great deal of emotion if allowed to take its time. The rapid tempo did allow the performer to showcase his technique, however.

Speaking of technique, at no point in the two Bach suites he played did I hear a seriously off-key note. It needs to be said right off the bat that in terms of technique, this cellist is as near impeccable as any human being has the right to be. He might learn a lesson or two from Mstislav Rostropovich in the matter of tone, but then we cannot have everything. What was actually brought before us was more than enough.

Here is a YouTube video of Alexander Chaushian playing Bach’s Suite No 1 in G major:

The first half of the recital ended with the Solo Cello Sonata by George Crumb (1929-), an avant-garde composer from the United States. His Wikipedia entry says he is interested in ‘exploring a wide variety of timbres’. Fans of the avant-garde may wish to explore pieces such as ‘Ancient Voices of Children’ (for mixed ensemble), ‘Black Angels’ (an electric string quartet), or the four books entitled ‘Makrokosmos’ – for piano, sometimes for two hands and sometimes for four. Wikipedia says of ‘Makrokosmos’ that ‘On several occasions the pianist is required to sing, shout, whistle, whisper, and moan, as well as play the instrument conventionally and unconventionally.’ You get the idea, I am sure, and will not be surprised to learn that many of his works require electronic amplification.

Dear reader, I warn you that the next two paragraphs are a rant. Skip them if you wish.

Here goes, then! I have a problem with ‘avant-garde’ music. In my view it relies too heavily on special effects. In the case of the cello, one of these consists of asking the performer to hold down a string with one of their fingers while they pluck another string with another finger of the same hand. To my mind, unless these unconventional ways of playing the instrument produce a pleasing effect that cannot be obtained by playing it the usual way, they are purely and simply gimmicks, and are no substitute for well-constructed form, thematic development and the sybaritic satisfactions of tone colour. Neither do I accept that two consecutive special effects of different kinds can be accounted ‘contrast’: to my mind they are still no more than special effects, and I just get bored. I wish the composer would get on with it and put some meat (or vegan cheese, as the case may be) in the sandwich. I do not require a waiter to balance the bowl of soup on the end of his nose as he brings it to me.

Even if a piece makes no obvious attempt to develop a theme or to titillate with timbre, I look for a build-up of drama as compensation. To be fair to the composers of avant-garde music, in the genre they have espoused it is possible to produce tension by getting the instruments to sound weird. (Füsun Köksal does this successfully in her String Quartet, for example. I mentioned it in connection with the concert by the Turkish Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in July 2019.) However, I find much avant-garde music not only gratuitously grating but also totally incomprehensible – which leads me to suspect that there was nothing to comprehend in the first place. All that matters, I fear, is the novelty. OK, mate, you’ve convinced me: you’re as up to date as the latest iPhone. But I look for more in music than obedience to fashion. (I use the word ‘obedience’ deliberately: obedience to modern musical fashions, however far-out they may be, is still... obedience.)

To return to the subject at hand, George Crumb’s Solo Cello Sonata is in three movements: ‘Fantasia: Andante espressivo e con molto rubato’, ‘Tema pastorale con variazioni’ and ‘Toccata: Largo e drammatico – Allegro vivace’. There is a theme that runs through most of the work (a falling minor third followed by a rising minor third), and this theme is explored in quite a creative manner in the first movement. The second movement, which starts at 03:45 in the recording that follows, has nothing obviously ‘pastoral’ about it apart from a certain jauntiness, and I remain puzzled by the title. (The time signature – six-eight – is indeed appropriate to the bucolic, but I would expect a ‘pastoral’ to have a more consistent rhythm.) The division between the second and third movements is unclear to me, but what I believe to be the third is very fast and very, very difficult to play. I am unable to extract much meaning from it; I am, however, open to persuasion.

In his performance of this work at The Seed, Alexander Chaushian managed the double-stopping and the pizzicato sections in George Crumb’s sonata with great skill. Here he is playing it on YouTube:

During the interval, I renewed my acquaintance with the trees in the garden of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum and stretched my legs. This may be an appropriate time to reflect on the remarkable improvement in audience behaviour that has taken place at the Istanbul Recitals in recent months. During Nikolai Demidenko’s recital in November there was only one brief blast of telephone noise; it was quashed before I felt the need to summon a swarm of wasps to chastise the offender. I hope I may be pardoned for misquoting Byron’s poem ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ as a dreadful warning to potential miscreants:

The wasplets came down like the wolf on the fold,
And their stingers were gleaming in purple and gold …

Finghin Collins’ recital in December was completely free from audience misbehaviour, as was Alexander Chaushian’s. Long may it last! The recorded announcement that is now played before the concerts begin may have something to do with it, but one hopes that independently of this animadversion, word has got around that one does not behave at a concert of classical music as one would at a cocktail party.

The second half began with Bach’s Suite No 2 in D minor. By this time, Alexander Chaushian had got sufficiently into his stride to consistently produce (no apologies for the split infinitive) an emotionally charged, vibrant and full-throated tone. Comparisons with Mstislav Rostropovich may be odious, but I can safely say that in the second round of Bach, Mr Chaushian’s tone approached his in quality.

I hope I may be forgiven for taking a short break from showcasing Mr Chaushian’s performances: in any case, I could not find a recording of him playing Bach’s Suite No 2 in D minor on YouTube. Instead, here is one of Mr Rostropovich playing it:

Alexander Chaushian’s tone in the ‘Sarabande’ was of an exquisitely lovely silkiness (in the above recording, this starts at 08:07). The long, sustained bass notes boomed so viscerally that had he been playing outside on the terrace, they might have vibrated the funnel off any ship that happened to be passing up the Bosphorus.

When the Bach had finished (as all good things must), we heard Paul Hindemith’s five-movement Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 25 No 3. I confess that I do not care for much of what Hindemith produced except parts of his Ludus Tonalis, which I find to have an appealing naivety. I am bound to admit, though, that this cello sonata has oodles of oomph. Quite impassioned, really – I didn’t know Hindemith ever got that worked up. Here is a ripping rendition by the Russian-Jewish cellist Natalia Gutman, a student of Rostropovich and the widow of Oleg Moiseyevich Kagan (interesting middle name, that), a superb violinist who died in 1990 at the age of 43. In this remarkable performance, Ms Gutman grabs you by the throat from the get-go:

The last item on Alexander Chaushian’s programme was a work entitled Alone by Giovanni Sollima, an Italian cellist and composer (1962–). I found this piece so appealing that I am tempted to take back some of the criticisms I have levelled at modern music – but then, I would dispute that this is actually ‘modern music’: it seems to me to have more to do with the ‘new age’ and ‘ethnic’ genres. There are elements of the music of the Turkish Black Sea coast (the open fourths are a giveaway), and also of Armenian folk music, with its drone bass underlying a mournful melody.

I must apologise to Alexander Chaushian (once again) for being unable to present a performance by him of Alone. Instead, here is Lamentatio, another of Sollima’s works, played by Narek Hakhnazaryan – a young cellist who is, like Mr Chaushian, an Armenian from Yerevan:

Alone, which exhibits many of the characteristics of Sollima’s Lamentatio but does not require the performer to sing, was an excellent choice as a closing item, and was played by Alexander Chaushian with his customary flawless technical brilliance. Here is a recording by Raphael Weinroth-Browne:

This was a highly enjoyable concert, and I hope it encourages the organisers of the Istanbul Recitals to consider giving space to more performers on stringed instruments and on solo instruments other than the piano.

The next recital in the series is due to take place on February 14, and is to be given by a duo – Soyoung Yoon (a South Korean violinist) and Mario Häring, a German pianist who will be accompanying her. Soyoung Yoon won first prize at the 14th Henryk Wieniawski Competition in Poland in 2011, while Mario Häring was placed second in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018. (Tickets, as always, from Biletix).

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