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Cellist Antonov shows mastery even as he grows.

Byline: Jonathan Blumhofer

Sergey Antonov, who gave a recital at the Worcester Area Mission Society Tuesday, is rightly billed as a brilliant cellist. He plays with warm vibrato and a rich, singing tone. His left hand, on Tuesday night at least, was conspicuous for its dexterity and ability to repeatedly find the true pitch. And his bow arm is as flexible and sensitive as any cellist's that I've heard. No virtuosic challenge is more his than his equal.

Interpretively, he's got some room to grow, but that's not particularly surprising for a young musician in his early 30s, regardless of technical abilities. There wasn't much, for instance, to distinguish his performance of Mendelssohn's Cello Sonata No. 2 from his reading of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, despite the near-70-year age difference between the two pieces. Both drew playing of big-boned, Romantic intensity: swooning, vibrato-rich melodic lines and plenty of rapid-fire passagework. What lacked in the Mendelssohn, though, was the felicity and lightness of touch that makes up a good deal of that composer's charm.

Antonov and his accompanist, Bernadene Blaha, seemed intent on playing as fast as they could (when called for) and on giving Mendelssohn's neo-Classical writing a motoric, Stravinsky-ian edge. That worked to a point but ultimately left me cold, in part because their articulations tended, in fast sections, to get blurry. More problematic was balance: the keyboard often swamped the cello, and not just at climactic points.

The latter problem was happily resolved for the Rachmaninoff, a moody, 1901 score that suits Antonov to a T. He dug in to the Sonata's lyrical, impassioned writing and rode it for about all it's worth. I'll not soon forget his fevered reading of the luminous slow movement or the hushed focus that came near the end of the finale, just before the headlong rush into the coda. In this sonata, too, Blaha managed a fine navigation of her busy -- in truth, orchestral -- part, better balanced and more texturally lucid than her account of the Mendelssohn. It was grand, songful, and dramatic: just what you expect in a top-notch performance of anything by Rachmaninoff.

To open the concert, the pair delivered a competent, if not exactly fiery, reading of David Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody. Modeled on the popular Liszt works of the same name and following a similar form (slow, ardent, lyrical sections alternating with brisk, snappy, dance-like portions), it at least provided a friendly, sonorous opportunity for Antonov to warm up.

Far more meaningful (and memorable) was the duo's traversal of Olivier Messiaen's "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,'' the fifth movement of Messiaen's numinous Quartet for the End of Time. By itself, this piece is utter simplicity: largely static, rhythmically, with a harmonic rhythm that unfolds slowly under a repeating melodic figure. As played on Tuesday, it was an essay in piety and fervent devotion, musical and spiritual, easily the most consequential statement (both the score and its transmittal) of the entire program.

Tuesday's recital was Antonov's Music Worcester debut and drew a large, appreciative audience. One can only hope that Music Worcester brings him back to town regularly so that we can experience his further development as an artist. This concert amply demonstrated that Antonov's one to watch.

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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Blumhofer, Jonathan
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 13, 2014
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