Cellist Gary Hoffman tugs at heartstrings

A fairly sizeable audience turned up on a Sunday afternoon for a chamber concert by the Canadian cellist Gary Hoffman, who is known as one of the world's leading chamber musicians.

Performing with faculty and students of the Conservatory, the programme offered could scarcely have been more inviting.

Czech nationalist composer Leos Janacek's Pohadka is a musical fairy tale in three short movements, scored in an unmistakeably haunting idiom with piquant harmonies and short repeated motifs which are largely derived from folk music.

Hoffman's 1662 Amati cello opened with pizzicatos, sang and then wept, ably supported by Indonesian pianist Anthony Hartono's sensitive playing with nuanced pedalling.



    Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

    Concert Hall/Sunday

That unusual palate-cleanser yielded the whiff of a breath mint before the more opulent offering of Anton Arensky's First Piano Trio In D Minor. Colleague of Tchaikovsky and teacher of Rachmaninov, Arensky mined the same rich melodic vein which has come to characterise Russian romanticism.

Melancholic and sometimes sentimental, it had a thematic interest shared by Hoffman's lush cello sound and Ukrainian Oleksandr Korniev's violin, which was every bit his match. Malaysian pianist Yap Sin Yee's busy part ranged from big-boned chords to an unexpected whimsicality in the scherzo second movement which exuded salon-like schmaltz that recalled Saint-Saens' frivolities.

In the slow movement, Elegia (Elegy), the dyed-in-the-wool Russian brooding came to the fore, contrasted by a gossamer-light and dreamy central section.

The passionate finale was conducted at high voltage, but was not without moments of levity and a reprise of the first movement's opening theme. This seemed like a reminiscence of a past age, a yearning for the good old days.

The second half comprised just Rachmaninov's mighty Cello Sonata In G Minor, which was a re-run of the heart-on-sleeve emotions displayed earlier in the Arensky trio. It seems one could not have enough of a good thing because the performance with pianist and conservatory don Albert Tiu was a treat.

Hoffman's entry, literally a heave and sigh, was good enough to keep one transfixed for the work's entire 35-minute duration. His shaping of melodic phrases was excellent, keeping the thematic thrust and narrative coherent.

He was aided by Tiu's unerring pianism, maintaining a cool head despite the multitudes of notes. The piano's bluster could have easily overwhelmed the cello, but that was never the case in this true partnership of equals.

The Andante slow movement tugged at the heartstrings with its unabashed lyricism, one of many high points in the recital. The hell-for-leather finale swept everything before it and the sonata concluded with the vocal ovation the performance deserved.

One suspects the name of Rachmaninov helped draw the audience, but it is the quality of the playing that keeps them coming.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Cellist Gary Hoffman tugs at heartstrings'. Print Edition | Subscribe