Narek Hakhnazaryan and Dina Vainshtein

On Saturday afternoon I had the immense pleasure of seeing a musician at a private concert who, in my opinion, is already one of the greatest of this century — and he’s still a student. I’m speaking of Narek Hakhnazaryan, a young Armenian cellist who was born into a family of musicians and started his own musical studies at an early age. Currently studying at the New England Conservatory of Music under Lawrence Lesser, Narek’s profound playing is exceptionally intelligent and enlightened, and he certainly has a bright career ahead of him. Accompanied by pianist Dina Vainshtein, the two delivered a solid program of masterful pieces by a wide variety of composers.

Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
Robert Schumann

Zart und mit Ausdruck
Lebhaft, leicht
Rasch und mit Feuer

Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2, Op. 58
Felix Mendelssohn

Allegro assai vivace
Allegretto scherzando
Molto allegro e vivace

Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40
Dimitri Shostakovich

Allegro ma non troppo


Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14
Sergei Rachmaninov

Variations on one string on a theme by Rossini
Nicolo Paganini

Opening with melancholy emotion, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke is charged with sad, lyrical beauty. That sad lyricism was majestically delivered by Narek Hakhnazaryan. Dina is also an excellent musician, and her playing was intuitive and trenchant. The first movement of Fantasiestücke flows effortlessly from one moment to the next, never interrupted by any unnecessary silence. The second movement is slightly more cheerful than the first, full of delicacy as it opens its face to the caress of the sun and the warmth that the music contains. The third movement is more forceful than the previous two, but it too is played with elegance — even if it is tinged with urgency and desperation at times. Narek drew bold, rich tones from his instrument (a 1698 David Tecchler, by the way, on loan), tones which overtook all other thoughts occupying my mind. Narek possesses extreme ability in seizing the heart of the listener, but seems unconcerned with them when he plays; Narek plays for the music, not for those who happen to be around to hear it and all the magnificence it exudes with him at its helm.

Full of gallantry from its open, Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 contains incredibly low notes on cello, somewhat guttural in sound. Piano opens with staccato notes for the second movement, cello joining in playing pizzicato. The music then gets progressively more intense, finally surging to become passionate waves of music played by both piano and cello. The mood then calms and quiets a little, becoming more subdued and sparse. To close, the two instruments parallel each other as they simultaneously play staccato notes. Rolled chords open the third movement, gradually developing and setting the stage for the halting melody on cello which loses that hesitance as it unfolds. Cello then sustains a note that vibrates in the air while piano continues to play rolled notes full of grandeur. Cello playing a trembling sustained note while piano rolls chords is a recurring theme throughout, and the movement closes in such a way. The Molto allegro e vivace final movement startled nearly everyone out of the trance that the previous movement put them in on Saturday. It’s adventurous from the opening, and keeps an exhilarating pace throughout. The music is a rapid succession of notes, and at times Narek’s fingers moved like a rattlesnake striking a victim. His intense eyes focused on the flurry of notes before him (one of the few pieces he used sheet music for) unless his eyes were cloaked by closed lids, as they frequently were. Galloping forward, the music increased in excitement up until a heart-stopping closing. I always have to make a scene, so of course I jumped up out of my seat to give the musicians a standing ovation at the end of the first half of the program. Narek and Dina deserved it, and I thought they should know.

The beginning of Shostakovich’s sonata is not like a beginning at all. Rather, it is as though the piece has been sounding since the beginning of time itself, and we first hear it when it’s already under way. Midway through the piece the piano plays staccato chords with force, chords which resound like the threat of an oncoming army. Indeed, from there the music only increases in tension and turmoil. Although the music goes through a transition near the end of the movement and closes softly, it scarcely resolves. Repetitive notes on both piano and cello introduce the second movement. Cello is incredibly full of depth, and Narek played with a variety of unusual — and at times somewhat whimsical — techniques. These included Narek sliding his thumb nail up and down the strings. At one point, his fingers danced nimbly like they were doing the Tarantella along the neck of his cello, curling and stepping gracefully. The ending of the movement is abrupt, and even more thrilling than everything else. The Largo third movement is a dark song that floats freely, seemingly unconstrained by the barriers of meter and time. Narek’s phrasing is humanistic in approach, as all phrasing should be no matter who the composer is, and for that reason the music is deeply expressive. Narek breathes with his cello, and when he plays the two become one, uniquely intertwined. At the end of the movement the last notes sounded by piano and cello ease into silence, shakily fading away. As for the final movement, it’s full of striking accents. It contains some very forceful music and is brimming with power that threatens to lose control but never does.

All of his playing was full of spirit and expression, but during no other piece did Narek’s playing so mimic the human voice as during Rachmaninov’s mournful “Vocalise.” Originally written for voice, the piece is a song without words (when performed by a singer only a vowel is sung) that has been arranged for many instruments. Although I love the arrangement for solo piano, cello has a sensitivity that is well suited for the stunning melody. One of the most haunting and achingly beautiful pieces of music ever written, “Vocalise” was truly brought alive by Narek and Nina, and I was clearly not the only one moved to tears by their performance of it.

The Variations on one string on a theme by Rossini are striking. The music alternates between the first register and the second, each variation broken only by a slight pause. The second is the most flirtatious, full of slides and grace notes. With each successive variation the music becomes faster and faster, and the final movement is bursting with all-consuming passion. As the end of the piece draws near, the cello races the piano — and at times itself. Faster and faster still, the notes whirl into an endless spiral, finishing in a frenzy broken only by three final long-bowed notes. When the piece was over the audience showed a frenzy of their own, this time the whole room rising to their feet. Called back into the room several times, as an encore Nina and Narek played a piece called “Salut, d’Amour” by Edward Elgar. It’s a gentle, flowing piece, each note spilling into the next, and the music pulses with jubilant dreams.

Narek’s playing contains a power that is evident from the moment his bow touches the strings of his cello, and that power leaves a lasting impression. The energy he has, whether playing a largo movement or an allegro one, is astounding. It’s infused into the listener, almost involuntarily so, and that’s true power as a musician. Narek plays with a purity not often seen, and technique which is even more rarely seen. The force and finesse he has is both a powerful and riveting combination, one that is surely not to go unnoticed in the years to come.

*You can find several videos on YouTube of Narek performing. The following were posted by the Moscow Conservatory, where Narek studied.

Schumann: Fantasiestücke

Rachmaninov: Vocalise

Paganini: Variations

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