Review: Paul Watkins & Alessio Bax

Feb. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

Paul Watkins, best-known in this country as the cellist (since 2013) of the Emerson String Quartet, is also an active soloist in chamber and orchestral concerts, a conductor (music director of the English Chamber Orchestra, among other gigs) and teacher. It may seem that he’s overworked professionally, but he certainly showed no evidence of that in the latest installment of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

Performing with Alessio Bax, a widely lauded Italian-born pianist now based in New York, Watkins ranged from Bach and Beethoven to Rachmaninoff, with a substantial detour into the contemporary – a piece by his younger brother, the prominent Welsh composer Huw Watkins.

The cellist’s and pianist’s collaborative gifts were generously displayed in Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, Op. 102, No. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. While Beethoven is sometimes credited with inventing the cello sonata, his five do not consign the piano to accompanying roles; nor does Rachmaninoff in his one sonata for these instruments. Who would expect that of the piano titans of their times?

Both composers share the wealth of technical and expressive challenges, and provide plenty of interplay, between the two instruments. The two sonatas contrast in tone – Beethoven is rather gruffly cheerful, although with some outbursts; Rachmaninoff more darkly soulful and generally more refined – giving the performers the chance to adopt a wide range of voices and characters.

The cellist and pianist played both sonatas with unaffected brilliance, making especially fine work of the Rachmaninoff by not succumbing to the temptation to over-interpret it. Watkins and Bax kept the music’s full heart securely in its chest, never letting it migrate to their sleeves.

Watkins alone showed comparable range in J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008, and his brother’s Prelude for solo cello, written in 2007.

Bach’s six suites for solo cello are, collectively, considered the highest summit that cellists climb, and Watkins negotiated the D minor with near-faultness technique, exploiting every opportunity that the composer gives the performer to sing and dance with the instrument. He also gave full voice and expresive range to Huw Watkins’ deceptively titled prelude, no miniature but a sarabande scaled up to a tone poem.

Watkins and Bax opened their recital milking abundant good cheer from the young Beethoven’s set of variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” (“Men who feel the call of love”) from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and offered Rachmaninoff’s familiar Vocalise as an encore.

VCU’s new-ish Steinway, inaugurated two years ago by Leon Fleisher, is a marvelous-sounding instrument, and the university’s Vlahcevic Concert Hall is famously kind to piano sound. I can’t recall it sounding better than it did with Bax at the keyboard. His crystalline tone production and judiciously graded dynamism brought out all the instrument’s best qualities.

While he wasn’t underemployed in this program, VCU needs to bring Bax back for a solo recital, the sooner the better.