The 1794 Meetinghouse in New Salem, MA – yes, the building dates from that year, albeit having had some renovations over the years — is now a non-profit concert venue that functions only in the spring, summer, and fall because it lacks central heat and air conditioning, amenities that did not yet exist when it was built (although the pews now have cushioned backs and seats). Yesterday afternoon, cellist Rebecca Hartka and pianist Gregory Hayes offered a program entitled “The Fathers of Classical Music” in honor of Father’s Day. It proceeded chronologically, opening with J. S. Bach’s first sonata (of three), originally written for viola da gamba, in G, S. 1027, dating from the 1740s, followed by Beethoven’s second sonata for cello (of five), also in G, Op. 5/2, written in 1796. After the pause, the duo performed Brahms’s first (of two), op. 38, in E, from 1862-’65, and concluded with Debussy’s in D, written in 1915. It was one of his last works, the first of a planned series of six sonatas for different instrumental combinations of which only three were completed before he died in 1918.
The acoustic of the hall, with its plain, unvarnished wide-board floors and wainscoated plaster walls and plaster ceiling, is superb, and the balance and blend of the instruments was striking. Hartka’s cello was made around 1920 by an Italian luthier. The piano is a restored 1915 Mason & Hamlin Model AA small (6’ 4”) grand, perfectly suited to the volume of the space. Both instruments date from after all the music was composed, but the musicians changed their handling of them masterfully to make them suit it well. The notes of the piano remained distinct, with no muddying; Hayes was able to obtain the quick decay of a harpsichord in the Bach, (he told me that this was the first time he had ever played the work on a piano), the more mellow tones of a fortepiano in the Beethoven, and a magical strumming effect in the opening Prelude and the second movement Serenade of the Debussy. Hartka managed magnificently every one of the variety of playing techniques, including some strumming, that Debussy put into his work. Her instrument is slightly larger than the standard size, although it seemed fine for the Beethoven as well. The Brahms was appropriately commandingly large and magisterial, and the musicians filled the space with the appropriate volume of sound.
The program was really a survey of the development of the cello sonata, from its very beginnings to the beginning of the 20th century, and consisted of monumental and challenging works along the way, skipping (of necessity for lack of time, and because it was already monumental enough) some other keystone contributions such as Mendelssohn’s; nevertheless the program hit the major milestones and turning points. It made for a challenging feat to execute, one to which the musicians rose superbly. There are many fine musicians living in the hill towns of Western Massachusetts. Hartka, who resides in Ashfield, is a free-lance cellist who has recorded a fine CD entitled “Foxfire,” and was recently appointed artistic director of music at The Pushkin in Greenfield’s Arts Block. The Pushkin is housed in a former bank building re-purposed as an art gallery and concert hall. It has a music series during the main season. Hayes, who lives in Goshen, has been on the faculty of Dartmouth College since 1991 and is also music director of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Northampton. He is a very versatile keyboard artist, playing the harpsichord, organ (modern and Baroque), and piano. They have only been concertizing together for the past few months, but their ensemble is polished and smooth.