Zlatomir Fung (cello) and Benjamin Hochman (piano)
February 2 2023
Review: William Ruff
Rare repertoire dazzlingly played by a young star cellist
It was just a few months ago that American cellist Zlatomir Fung was in Nottingham, playing Elgar’s concerto at the Royal Concert Hall. He returned to the city on Thursday night with pianist Benjamin Hochman to play in Lakeside’s chamber music series. Still only 23, he seems to have a truly global approach to music-making, perhaps unsurprising considering his half-Chinese, half-Bulgarian background. Already the recipient of several major international awards, he is clearly a young cellist on the road to stardom. And this Lakeside programme revealed an adventurous taste in repertoire, including three composers who would have been unfamiliar to most of the audience.
Take Leo Ornstein, for instance, a Russian pianist and composer who emigrated in 1907 (at the age of 15) to the USA. He started to make a mark with experimental compositions from an early age and was hailed as the prophet of a new musical era. He even had a full-scale biography written about him when he was barely 25. Sadly, the world soon found new prophets, but even though the limelight faded he continued to compose. He died in 2002…at the age of 107!
So hats off to Zlatomir Fung for championing Ornstein’s 6 Cello Preludes, especially as they contain some of his best music, generally consisting of brief, striking ideas which build to imposing climaxes full of emotional intensity. They also provided Fung and pianist Hochman with plenty of opportunities to show their musical rapport. Cello and piano have to interact with intimacy as they conduct a conversation of equal partners. The pieces also showcased the duo’s ability to move from one extreme to another: not only of emotion but also of dynamics, texture, rhythm and style. Ornstein’s language is highly distinctive, leaving the audience wondering quite what is coming next. Sometimes we were on relatively familiar ground, but then the sound-world becomes more edgy, with jazzy dissonances and influences from Ornstein’s Jewish/Russian heritage.
The programme’s final (and most likely to be familiar) work was Shostakovich’s D minor Cello Sonata. It’s an intriguing work, written shortly before the composer incurred Stalin’s displeasure, and one in which cello and piano are again equal partners. It starts fairly predictably and lyrically. But then the opening song is disturbed by what sound like ‘wrong’ notes and the music starts to veer between minor and major making the listener feel decidedly queasy. Then a lovely second idea is undermined by a menacing (military drum?) rhythm which comes to dominate the latter stages of the first movement. There follows a savagely wild, manically unpredictable scherzo before the profound tragedy of the slow movement, a deeply poignant Largo. And then the madness reappears in a finale whose caustic main theme alternates with frenzied episodes during which the cello and piano seem almost unaware of each other’s existence. It’s an extraordinary piece, captured in vivid colours by Fung and Hochman.
There were gentler pieces in their programme too: a very attractive Romance by Nikolay Sokolov; the charming Entracte from Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda; six richly characterful pieces by Ukrainian-born Yuri Shaporin and a very welcome Borodin encore. However, this was a concert that was much more than the sum of its unusual parts, its combination of dazzling playing, unpredictability and sense of adventure ensuring that it won’t be easily forgotten.
Zlatomir Fung, cello
Benjamin Hochman, piano