Nicolas Altstaedt delivers delights from the cello repertoire that you won’t often hear

The unconventional repertoire offered by Franco-German Nicolas Altstaedt draws unusual cheers from a delighted crowd after an exotic and electrifying performance.

On the bill there is music by the Soviet l’enfant terrible Sergey Prokofiev; the great educator Nadia Boulanger, a rare breed of female composer; Anotherfemale composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh who comes from largest country of Caucasian Eurasia, Azerbijian; and the father of nueva tango Astor Piazzolla.

Only Ludwig van Beethoven needs no introduction.

The recently-renovated amphitheatre of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts is a wonderful venue. Seating at the rear part of the hall, the sound of the instrument is surprisingly close. The reverberation is just right: a bit unevenly diffuses but warmly resonates. All the musical details are clearly delivered. You can hear the friction of the bow, the breath of the cellist and even the sound of a small gestures of the arm. The hall magnifies the nuances like putting a recording microphone right next to the instrument — first time ever in Hong Kong that you can hear the action of making music comparable to that hearing a pair of loudspeakers. Here you also see flesh and blood in front of your naked eyes.

Does it mean the music sounds artificial? No. It means that we finally have a place with good acoustic for chamber music. Forget about the concert hall.

Mr. Altstaedt starts with a crispy rendition of Beethoven’s Variation WoO 45. The 1821, Nicolas Lupot-built cello does not have a deep sound. With Mr. Altstaedt his sensitive grasp of phrasing and decisive articulation and a rather dry, no-pedal piano, the performance has a slight dose of Baroque touch.

Prokofiev’s third sonata replaces Zoltán Kodály’s solo sonata. It’s Kodály’s Op. 8 drawing me to this concert, but after the Prokofiev it’s the artist himself that fascinates me. His sensitive touch, plain but effective rendition of every details, including the sarcasm, laughters and lyricisms within such a short and horrified sonata is astonishing.

There follows an exotic second half, as Mr. Altstaedt has coined in his interview with me earlier that day. We have talked about Gidon Kremer in great length, a musician Mr. Altstaedt particularly admires. The freshness of Mr. Kremer is vital, and his constant exploration to new domain of music is also a source of inspiration for Mr. Altstaedt.

The lovely three pieces by Boulanger sounds much better, perhaps much more intimate, than it sounds on the recently-released Naxos record. From the hushes of the audience you feel the attention and the joy of hearing Ali-Zadeh’s exotic Habil-Sajahy, a heavily John Cage-influenced piece. José Gallardo is not only a sensitive pianist but also a percussionist here in making the prepared piano sounds it the way it shouldn’t be. The Piazzolla Grand Tango ends with all the exuberance and joy.

Encore comes with Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ O trenzinho do caipira. This time the cello becomes a little train, starting up, running and stopping its heavy wheels to a complete stop. I wonder if the younger audience knows how the cello vividly resembles a giant steamer? May be not; For me I have only seen the steamers on the National Geographic Channel and travelled on diesel-locomotive-driven wagers while going to excursions to ancestors’ graves. But the encore draws a loud applause from the audience with lots of cheers. No one would expect such a delight from these unconventional cello music. Mr. Altstaedt triumphs with his wild imagination of music and electrifying performance.

This concert is part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and Mr. Altstaedt is one of the three Credit Suisse Emerging Artists of the year.

Date: March 8, 2011
Venue: Amphitheatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Artist Photo © Marco Borggreve

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