Cellist Hee-Young Lim‘s new album Russian Elegie with pianist Natalia Milstein – streaming at Spotify – is as evocative as you could possibly want from a collection of some of the most gorgeously emotional music ever written. Yet the two don’t overdo it. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s performances of his own work had a remarkable restraint, and the two seem to base their interpretations on that model.
They start with the iconic Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G minor: brief plaintive exchanges, a hint of gospel, bustling piano and a melody very close to the quiet section of the famous G minor prelude, also more than hinting at the Piano Concerto No. 2’s more scampering riffage. There are striking contrasts between the glitter and energy of the piano and the cello’s brooding cantabile, and a welcome, understatement when the music calms, in contrast with Lim’s vigorous pizzicato in places.
There’s a devious noir cabaret energy to the second movement, but the gentle High Romantic ballad at the center is completely straightforward and gives both musicians some of their most vividly expressive moments. The same rings true with the lingering, nocturnal third movement, a rare love song that isn’t mawkish or cliched. By contrast, they really nail the conclusion’s symphonic grandeur yet draw the listener in with the stunning intimacy of the next-to-last theme, one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful moments in the entire classical canon.
Next on the bill is Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major. It’s more enigmatic and maybe for that reason the duo approach the first couple of movements more emphatically and vigorously, particularly in Lim’s ferocious pizzicato chords and the second’s triumphant, bell-like false ending. The coyly carnivalesque third movement is irresistbly funny in these two’s hands; the majesty that follows comes as quite a surprise, as does the wistfulness in the final movement.
They close the album with an especially lithe interpretation of Vocalise, another iconic Rachmaninoff piece. It seems a little on the fast side, which actually works out well considering the duo’s light-fingered, remarkably subtle approach, sidestepping weepiness for a very matter-of-fact delivery. How lucky listeners are if they discover this repertoire via this particular album..