Armenian cello star Narek Hakhnazaryan seduces Vancouver Recital Society audience

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Narek Hakhnazaryan
With Noreen Polera. A Vancouver Recital Society production. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Sunday, February 10. No remaining performances

“Did you like that razzle-dazzle?” asked one presumably less-than-impressed patron during intermission, but his cynical query fell on unsympathetic ears. “I loved it!” countered his companion, and there’s no doubt she was voicing the majority opinion. Narek Hakhnazaryan’s Vancouver debut brought a capacity crowd out on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and that audience was effusive in its approval.

It’s undeniable that there was an element of show-biz razzle in the young Armenian cellist’s program, which was calculated to seduce. Opening with César Franck’s Sonata in A Major is a surefire way to make a good first impression. It takes a really good cellist to nail the opening “Allegretto ben moderato” ’s blend of swooning intensity and careful pacing, and Hakhnazaryan did just that, aided by the impeccable Noreen Polera on piano.

Speaking of sonic glitter, Frédéric Chopin apparently described his own Introduction and Polonaise Brillante as having “nothing to it but dazzle”, at least in its original incarnation as a violin showcase. Any thoughts that the darker cello would unearth a layer of deeper meaning were denied by Hakhnazaryan’s flamboyant performance—but both his 1698 David Tecchler instrument and Chopin’s 182-year-old work sounded as fresh as tomorrow.

Which was a nice segue into a second half that began with two works by living composers, and that touched on some more sombre themes. Anyone disappointed by Hakhnazaryan’s decision not to perform György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello, as advertised, was more than mollified by its replacement, Armenian composer Adam Khudoyan’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Cello. Dedicated to the 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turkish forces during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, it opens with an impersonation of tolling bells and continues in a similarly mournful manner. This is one tough elegy, though, marked by passages of jazz-inflected pizzicato, eerie artificial harmonics, and the effective use of traditional Armenian melodies.

One caveat: the Khudoyan piece rendered Mikhail Bronner’s The Jew: Life and Death, which followed, mildly redundant.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s moody Nocturne made an effective transition into the same composer’s far more upbeat Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62, and the fireworks towards the end of the cellist’s encore: Niccolo Paganini’s Variations on a Theme From Moses in Egypt, also known as Introduction and Variations on One String. As the alternate title suggests, this is played entirely on the cello’s A string—but Hakhnazaryan made it music.

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Jo Hammond
Not only did Hakhnazaryan seduce the Vancouver Recital Society audience, he worked the same magic with the Coast Recital Society audience the previous day when we were fortunate to have him as a replacement for the ailing soprano, Layla Claire. However, I would have to differ from Mr. Varty's lukewarm comment about Mikhail Bronner's composition. But then, isn't listening to music a subjective thing? I found Hakhnazaryan's voice doubling with the cello gave a strangely evocative almost eerie touch to the piece, all the more so due to his controlled vocal sonority and tuning that made it almost undetectable. Even the woman next to me missed out on that!
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