The great Joe Johnson
Magnificent technique and deep understanding informed every bar of Joseph Johnson’s cello recital Monday night at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
This was a special occasion: Johnson is about to end his three-year tenure as principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony and join the Toronto Symphony. He’s made a big impression in his limited time in Milwaukee, as an orchestra leader, as a chamber musician, and as a person dedicated to the musical life of the community. (He was a concerto soloist for the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra; he didn’t have to do that.) More than 100 of his many admirers packed the recital hall to show their appreciation and to hear one of the finest young cellists in the world up close.
Johnson opened with Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007. As Johnson noted in his witty and informative remarks from stage, everyone has an opinion about how Bach solo suites ought to be played. He didn’t say, but everyone knows, that the opinions swing between two poles: Baroque and dancey vs. Romantic and rhetorical. As he played the Suite in G, Johnson revealed an opinion about each movement.
I loved his conception of the Prelude: Witty and light, overall, it opens as an exchange between a gruff, taciturn lower voice and an expansive upper voice. The upper one, of course, eventually takes over the whole conversation. The idea of dialog extended into his freely rhetorical reading of the Allemande, with the lower voice muttering and the upper voice ever more ardent. He took the Courante at a thrilling tempo and made a breathless, very French dance of it. The thick ornamentation didn’t slow him down; he tossed it off like a kid shooting fireworks from a racing speedboat. Bach wrote one of his best melodies for the Sarabande; Johnson forgot about dance and made an ardent aria of it and made it throb and flex expressively. What charming swing and lilt he granted the Menuett. He topped it all off with an exceptionally fast, rowdy and rustic Gigue.
Benjamin Britten’s amazing Suite No. 3, Opus 87, followed.
The nine connected, very brief movements veer from the Looney-Tune high-speed antics of the Moto Perpetuo: Presto (No. 8) to the mournful, chant-like melodies of the Prelude (No. 1) to the jagged abstraction of the Recitativo (No. 7). Johnson brought each vividly distinct section to full bloom, but somehow found a through-line and overall arc. He simply shrugged off the vast technical difficulties of Britten’s Suite and drove home the drama and meaning.
This sonata is mainly — but not only — about big, ardent, Romantic melodies driven by richly figured arpeggios. Johnson understands these melodies on every level, and his skill is such that he makes you understand them, too. The second theme of the first movement, for example, begins as a straightforward hymn. Ever so gradually, it changes character and becomes a cosmic outcry, and Johnson delivered that change and unleashed its enormous dramatic impact.
Before they played the Sonata, Johnson modestly described it as a “piano sonata with cello accompaniment.” It isn’t, but the formidable piano part is at least on equal footing with the cello. Yu was fabulous as both pianist and collaborator. In the slow movement, the dreamy quality of the principal theme lies in its odd placement vis-a-vis the harmony and the ostinato pattern. She dropped it in just so, rhythmically, and with exactly the right touch. The thing floated like a shimmering ghost and became even more compelling as a ghostly counter-melody when the cello took up its theme.
They ended with Rachmaninoff’s Melody, transcribed from a song for high voice, as an encore. It sang so beautifully in Johnson’s hands as to make a jaded listener weep. Johnson is not just a highly skilled musician. He loves to make music, and you can hear that love in every phrase.