Clever works of selfless love

Music: Cellist Evan Drachman's new CD celebrates the music of his cellist grandfather, Gregor Piatigorsky, and is a philanthropic endeavor

Fine Arts

August 03, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Talented cellist Evan Drachman is one of those rare individuals who does well by doing good. He's managed to combine entrepreneurship, musicianship and philanthropy. They all come together in the Piatigorsky Foundation, the charitable organization that Drachman named after his grandfather, the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

It's an organization that brings the word charity close to its Latinate root of "caritas," or selfless love. The works of love the Piatigorsky Foundation performs extend two ways: toward people in places where they would not ordinarily have the opportunity to hear classical music, such as retirement communities, churches, synagogues and schools; and toward gifted young musicians who need opportunities to perform.

Now the foundation has issued its first recording. Buying the CD sends $15 off to do good works, and the recording will amply reward anyone who purchases it.

Its title is "A frog he went a-courting," and it offers Drachman himself and pianist Richard Dowling in short works by Hindemith, Schubert, Faure and others. What unites this material is that all of it was associated with Piatigorsky (some of the pieces were written expressly for him, and many entered the cello repertory because the great cellist himself transcribed them for his instrument).

The most important items here are the 13 "Variations on an Old Nursery Tune `A frog he went a-courting,' " which Paul Hindemith composed in 1941 as a gift for Piatigorsky, one of his oldest and dearest friends. The composer wrote almost his entire oeuvre for the cello with Piatigorsky in mind.

This is a rarely performed and ingenious work, in which each of the short variations is a response to the 13 verses of this nursery song, a wonderfully bizarre story about the aborted wedding of a frog and a mouse in which the wedding party ends up being swallowed by a snake.

Like Brahms, Hindemith's stock-in-trade was "absolute" music, but in this work, he showed that he could write representational music with the best of them. Hindemith's splendid illustration of the tale includes a high register for the mouse, alternating "buzzing" eighth-note semitones for the bee and a hilarious fugato for the dispatching of the wedding guests. Drachman's performance brings to mind the way his grandfather played. The resemblance to his grandfather has to do with more than just good taste, eloquent phrasing and a command of bravura.

These qualities are possessed equally by cellist Wendy Warner (with pianist Eileen Buck) on another new disc devoted entirely to Hindemith's music, "Works for Cello and Piano by Paul Hindemith" (Bridge 9088). But the performance by Warner, one of our most brilliant younger cellists, is charmless compared with that of Drachman.

Drachman possesses in abundance two qualities for which his grandfather was revered: the ability to make the cello imitate the human singing voice and, even more important, the ability to tell a story. In Warner's performance, upper-register passages are an impressive demonstration of her command of bravura. Drachman's performance of the same passages illustrates a command of histrionics -- hilarious ones at that. It's a quality that is all too rarely found nowadays, and it makes Drachman's disc special.

The disc (and further information about the work of the Piatigorsky Foundation) can be acquired by contacting the foundation by mail (90 West Street, Suite 1605, New York, N.Y. 10006), phone (212-732-8941), fax (212-732-2928) or e-mail (

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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