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Technically, Helmerson, who shared a teacher (William Pleeth) and later also a manager with Jacqueline du Pre, is outstanding in performing this first work of the evening but, known for studying a score in depth before he decides on its interpretation, it is clear that he did not get the chance to apply the same time and energy to preparation as he usually does. There was some sensitive phrasing and nuances at times but then the cycle's intimate lyrical quality seemed to go somewhat amiss.

Mendelssohn's Sonata for Cello and Piano in D (Op 58), performed by Gililov and Young-Chang Cho, produces the first whoosh effect of the evening, helped, perhaps, by the fact that Mendelssohn wrote this work for a high-ranked retired military officer who was a pretty competent amateur cellist looking for a challenge. Mendelssohn was no stranger to the cello, his brother Paul having been a decent amateur cellist also, and so he had a greater sensitivity to the instrument than Schumann. The four movements are characterised by a fine interplay between piano and cello, especially the adagio that takes the dialogue between the two instruments into a different sphere, with the chorale arpeggios of the piano generating a lavish and inviting response from a sensitive cello. The two performers are in constant communication with each other, listening to each other visibly and with Young-Chang Cho glancing over his shoulder at Gililov's notes from time to time, to orient himself not only to his own but also to his partner's point in the work. At the end, there is applause that can only be described as thunderous and the two men, overwhelmed with the result of their first performance together, hug each other warmly, something that suggests that a genuine friendship exists between them. Seated in the first row, Gililov's mother, who arrived from Russia that morning, is bursting with pride, and everyone calls out for more.

Belgian (left) and French cello bridges compared. Photo © Wolfgang Schnabl
Belgian (left) and French cello bridges compared. Photo © Wolfgang Schnabl

Next on the program is Prokofiev's Sonata for cello and piano in C (Op 119) and for this, Helmerson joins Gililov again on stage. Playing with the Belgian type bridge that produces a brighter and more pronounced sound that its longer-winged, shorter-legged French counterpart favored by Gililov's former partner Pergamenschikow, the opening andante grave produces precisely the opposite effect of the Gililov/Pergamenschikow partnership, with a very bright cello dominating the opening movement and Gililov's sensitive piano. But then, something happens as the music takes over, to the point that lack of preparation time is no longer an issue as the two musicians unite in producing musical as well as human excellence, steering themselves to a place somewhere way beyond magnificent. Helmerson's cello opens up, rather dramatically, to the Prokofiev style: his instrument becomes more lyrical, produces a warmer tone, less in your face, and there is now unity between the two instrumentalists. This is probably helped along by the simple-style melodic nature of the work. The moderato, leading into the allegro, ma non troppo, comes with such tastefully conceived phrasing and smooth quality that there is now the kind of near-perfection that gives an idea of what these two musicians are capable of together.

Helmerson directs one hundred percent of his attention to expression, reaches for the peak of this phrase or that with abandon, and opens up for musical colour and nuance as he gets swept up in the music together with his instrument. It is very difficult to escape the dramatic effect of Helmerson's thoughtful play, for the cellist takes his audience along with him into the core of the work: this is not a cheerful work, leastwise not as cheerful as it appears on the surface. Is it mellow? Yes, sure. Tuneful? Of course. But it has a tragic undertone, one that Helmerson knows to bring out, especially in the enigmatic ending that suggests the ending of something extra-musical, which some critics have ascribed to the composer musically depicting the end of the world. Perhaps it must have seemed to Prokofiev like that, considering the work was composed one year after the Stalin purge of 1948, which lead to Prokofiev's music being labelled as being 'marked with perversion'. It is the end of something, for sure. The world? Who knows? On a more personal interpretative level, for the musicians and public present at Kronberg it may represent the end of the cello-sky as we knew it until now. Pergamenschikow is gone, the sky will now forever look different with one less star to brighten it, and his friend and colleague Helmerson's cello becomes a sting in the heart, beautiful but mournful, as he drives this truth home in no uncertain terms with his sensitive interpretation of the final movement. Eyes closed in musical abandon, Helmerson gives a compellingly elegant rendering of what it means to face loss and good-bye, with a rather pronounced ouch-effect. He speaks without words, but what he says through the polished handling of his cello, its brilliance of sound, the warmth of its tone, comes across with an intensity and passion as could not have been more vehement had he chosen another vehicle, aside his first-rate musical performance, to make his point that evening. The fact that he leaves nobody untouched, and more than a few gasping with admiration, shows not only his excellence at the cello but also his deep integrity on a human level.

Not surprisingly, there are bravos and enthusiastic clapping when the piece comes to an end and everyone present is converted into a Helmerson fan -- this was a display of musical excellence at its very finest.

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Copyright © 8 September 2004 Tess Crebbin, Kronberg, Germany

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