Two young musicians combine their talents for a spirited and sensuous mix of European and Persian songs. Review of Kian Soltani and Aaron Pilsan's Home (Deutsche Grammophon)
Kian Soltani is clearly going places. He began attracting serious international attention five years ago, when he took first prize in the International Paulo Cello Competition in Helsinki – just one of his many awards to date. Since then he has been taken up by the likes of Daniel Barenboim – both as principal cello in the maestro’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and as a partner soloist in a tour of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (which saw the young Austrian playing the BBC Proms at just 23) – and Anne-Sophie Mutter. In 2017, aged 25, he signed an exclusive contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. His friend and frequent musical partner, pianist Aaron Pilsan, appears to be no less impressive, and even younger. When Home was released in early 2018, he was still only 22.
The album’s title alludes to the fact that both musicians hail from the mountainous Vorarlberg region of western Austria; hence Soltani’s decision to focus largely on pieces by Schubert and Schumann, whose music he grew up with. At the same time, however, there is a reflection of his other cultural roots – he was born to expatriate Persian musicians – in the inclusion of a cycle entitled Persian Folk Songs by Reza Vali, a composer who left Iran for the west in the 1970s, and of a short solo piece written by the cellist himself, entitled ‘Persian Fire Dance’. It may sound an odd mix, but it works remarkably well, held firmly together by the precise and highly expressive musicianship of Soltani and Pilsan.
The duo’s strengths are immediately apparent in Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, originally written for piano and arpeggione, a short-lived instrument somewhat like a bowed guitar, which in its transcription for the cello makes considerable demands upon the performer. Soltani meets the challenge with seemingly effortless expertise; his playing is refined and elegant, but always powerful when the occasion requires; his tone seductive, even velvety at times, yet never cloying. And he is beautifully matched by Pilsan’s wholly sympathetic accompaniment, likewise supremely dexterous but never flashy. The Adagio is especially persuasive in its gently melancholic lyricism – as is the transcription of Schubert’s song ‘Nacht und Träume’ (‘Night and Dreams’), which follows.
Composed a quarter of a century after Schubert’s sonata, Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces) and his Adagio and Allegro in A flat major are similarly well served. The former, originally written for clarinet and piano – a lovely performance by Jörg Widmann and Dénes Várjon was recently released on Widmann’s Once Upon a Time… – works very well indeed in its version for cello and piano, with Soltani and Pilsan revelling in its quicksilver mix of moods, ranging from a delicate opening to a fiery finale. The Adagio and Allegro, meanwhile – originally composed for horn, though Schumann again provided versions for viola or cello – is starker in its contrasts, the first movement wistful, the second robust in its vigour. Once more, the musicians are enabled to display their considerable skills, but never at the expense of sensitivity and taste. As with the Schubert, a transcribed song follows: Schumann’s brief ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (‘You Are Like a Flower’); again, cello and piano combine to create a tender beauty.
It is perhaps the cycle by Reza Vali – here given its world premiere recording (Soltani invited the composer to provide something especially for the album) – which will excite the most curiosity. In keeping with the collection’s focus on notions of ‘home’, Vali drew upon the folk music traditions of his homeland, sometimes quoting directly from existing materials, sometimes contributing wholly new ‘folk songs’ of his own invention. Of the seven miniatures (the shortest lasts just under two minutes, the longest runs to a little over four), the first four deal with the experience of being in love. ‘Longing’ is appropriately unsettled, with a sensuous, impulsive solo for cello in the middle; ‘In Memory of a Lost Beloved’ has a poignant cello meandering, as if lost or stuck in time, over a repeated, circular piano motif; ‘The Girl from Shiraz’ features the cello in extended, entranced meditation over sparse piano accompaniment, only to end with an unexpected drift, as if emerging from a reverie; while the more upbeat ‘Love-Drunk’ is a joyous, stumbling dance, fast, faltering and heady.
The cycle’s three final ‘songs’ have likewise evocative titles. ‘In the Style of an Armenian Folk Song’ is precisely that, with close, melancholy, singing harmonies. ‘Imaginary Folk Song’, with its restless, changing tempi and occasional glissandi sounds almost as if it’s being composed on the spot, uncertain of where to turn next until it skips carelessly and confidently, off towards a coda for piano, suggestive of spring birdsong. And ‘Folk Song from Khorasan’ is a wild, spirited dance, packed with jagged, percussive angularity before it arrives at its surprisingly playful pizzicato ending. In the album’s notes, Soltani describes Vali as ‘something like the Bartók of Iran’, and it’s in this last piece, especially, that that comparison of the composer’s blending of indigenous folk materials with the Western ‘classical’ tradition is most evocative. Yet Vali’s music, a little more romantic than Bartók’s, might also be likened, perhaps, to that of Kodály, or even Albéniz or Falla. Nonetheless, the duo’s performances are excellent throughout, a model of meticulous musical collaboration.
The album closes, as if with an encore, with Soltani’s own composition for solo cello, ‘Persian Fire Dance’. He confesses in the notes that there is no such thing in Persian music as a fire dance, but the title is fitting, given how the piece builds from long, slow, droning chords through a stomping, percussive section – almost dervish-like in its energy – towards a finale of ever-increasing intensity. Quietly brilliant and subtly nuanced, Soltani’s playing here, as throughout this pleasingly programmed selection, provides ample proof that he’s a musician to watch.
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