Rising Stars Cellist Zlatomir Fung and Pianist Richard Fu Make Impressive La Jolla Debuts

The young American cellist Zlatomir Fung is exactly the sort of performer the La Jolla Music Society’s Discovery Series was designed to showcase. Winner of several important competitions, including first prize in the 2019 Tchaikovsky International Competition for Cello, Fung made his auspicious local debut Saturday, June 5, at The Conrad in La Jolla.

In an hour-long program he displayed those characteristics that we expect from prizewinners: fleet technical mastery, well-polished interpretation, and a high level of refinement. With collaborative musician Richard Fu at the piano, the duo gave a commanding account of Beethoven’s Sonata for Pianoforte and Cello in A Major, Op. 69, surrounded by lighter works, Giovanni Sgambati’s “Serenata Napoletana” and Adrien Servais’ Fantasie and Variations on Themes from Donizettti’s La fille du régiment, Op. 16.

The Beethoven Sonata, Op. 69, is one of the foundational works of the cello chamber repertory, one that gives equal weight to the keyboard and to the string player, and this duo amply demonstrated its many virtues. I was particularly taken with Fu’s account of the Beethoven Sonata. Both his sparkling articulation of its brilliant figurations and his luxurious, cantabile legato of the more relaxed themes provided a crystalline focus that contrasted to Yefim Bronfman’s robust, athletic interpretation of Beethoven’s solo Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 22, that we enjoyed last month at The Conrad.

Bronfman gave us Beethoven the budding, passionate Romantic, while Fu’s approach presented Beethoven as the polished classicist. Since Beethoven contained both of these characteristics, these contrasting views are equally grounded in the composer’s complex musical persona. Fung’s supple line and understated panache complemented Fu, and their deftly balanced collaboration ignited the fireworks of the final Allegro vivace with elan.

Sgambati’s compact “Serenata Napoletana” from 1890 was originally written for violin and piano, and this arrangement for cello and piano struck me as charming but respectable salon music. Fung gracefully turned out its insouciant flourishes and airy themes as a playful tennis match with the pianist.

Compilations and fancy piano arrangements of the hit tunes from popular operas—often called “reminiscences”—played a role in 19th-century musical life comparable to that of records and CD’s in the last century. The Belgian cellist Adrien Servais (1807 – 1866), a leading cellist in his day, no doubt wanted a part of this action for his instrument, so he composed his Fantasie and Variations for piano and cello based on Donizetti’s comic opera La fille du régiment, which was the Oklahoma of its day. Fung proved as adept with the flashy variations as he was skilled with the delicate melodies played only on harmonic tones.

For his encore, Fung played “The Village Song.”

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