Newport Classical’s Cocktails and Concert gala in the Redwood Library & Athenaeum was to have featured pianist Marc-André Hamelin with cellist Johannes Moser and some fascinating repertoire, but on very short notice, Hamelin canceled due to illness. Pianist Drew Petersen stepped in and the duo impressed with three revered warhorses for cello and piano.
Amongst the library’s historic portraits, sculptures, exhibits, and rare books, Newport Music served up imposing sonatas by Brahms, Debussy and Franck, along with champagne and sumptuous hors-d’oeuvres. While it would have been interesting to hear the planned pieces by Nadia Boulanger and Hamelin, the substitution of the Brahms gave the audience a chance to hear a true masterwork of the cello repertoire from by an incomparable master; Drew Petersen clearly established himself as a fitting musical companion for this challenging and extraordinary set of pieces, the duo achieved natural grace, ease, and nuance as if they had been working together for years.
The program annotator described the Debussy Violin Sonata, the last of four projected four sonatas at the end of his life, when he intended as restorations of the glories of French music that he felt German composers had overtaken. The Sonata for violoncello L. 135 came first in this set. Prologue – Lent begins with a piano evocation of ancient themes infused with French Baroque ornament, those gypsy elements that were fused into folk idioms as well as with the ancient chant of the liturgy, interweaving a complex social construct that had begun in the Middle Ages and included melodies not only French but from Spain as well. Debussy was aware of at least some, if not all, of this history, but was even more mindful of its sound which was a part of his being. The piano and the cello carry on as independent voices weaving through an intricate labyrinth of ancient recitative enmeshed in modern yet strangely modal harmonies suggesting ‘antiquity’, occasionally settling together in moments of serene peace, and bringing the movement to a close. Sérénade – Modérément animé brings puckish humor, with short harpsichord like tones from the piano accented by pizzicato from the cello. Again, the two instruments function each in their own realms, and then come together for moments of exhilaration and enchanted melodies. The movement ends quietly but segues immediately into the final and all too brief Finale – Animé.
One of French music’s generally understood but not always expressly stated conventions comes in the concept of a presto finale, a fast movement that gets even faster at its end. After all the subtle nuancing of the previous two movements Moser and Petersen gave us a tour-de-force finish, that left the audience wanting for more.
“More” came in the iconic Brahms Sonata. Moser welcomed this change, announcing that he was always thrilled to play this piece, not the least because there was an apparent family connection for the Moser family to the Joachim family and thus, to violinist Joseph Joachim who friended and worked with Brahms. In the first movement, which is considerably longer and weightier than the subsequent two, Brahms combines classic sonata form with romantic lines and symphonic textures, cello and piano as equal partners but also exploring the different ranges of each instrument in unusual ways, creating a variety of textures that emulate symphonic writing. Brahms achieved this symphonic sound in his solo piano works by exploiting the full range of the keyboard and maximizing its various registers as one would contrast winds, strings, brass, and the full complement. The cello gives him not just one extra voice, but many, by exploiting all the registers of the cello in the same way. Moser’s 1694 Andrea Guarneri (from a private collection) projected a resplendent and resonant tone in the fine acoustic of the main exhibit hall of the Redwood Library.
The second movement, a minuet and trio, offers two musical motifs that play off against each other, with the cello and piano trading them off in each section of the minuet, while for the trio they play a single motif in unison with each other. Moser and Petersen cleverly continued alternating the lead, primarily through voicing stronger and weaker dynamics. Brahms does not indicate this delightful touch.
The final movement, a brilliant fugue which contrasts a triplet motive against a duple again offers trading off between the two instruments. Petersen and Moser attacked the fugal motive with ferocious intensity, while giving the contrasting theme a passionate, gypsy-like treatment, all culminating in a bravura finish.
Franck indicated his approved of the cello as an alternate instrument for his epic Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, FWV8 in a letter shortly after Eugène Ÿsaye’s premiere of the work in its original form in 1886. Franck’s friend, virtuoso cellist Jules Delsart left the piano part untouched and merely inserted the cello transcription.
As Franck had considerable technique as a pianist and organist, the keyboard part is often quite thick and highly demanding. Despite all this, the music itself has a lightness, finesse, and transparency that marks a gilded age of French artistry and technique in composition. Franck came to head the famed conservatory in Paris which once gave him a failing grade. Petersen often took a leading role in the first movement, and his playing was marked by transparency and sensitivity, the themes in transcendent beauty against a sparkling, tinsel-like accompaniment figures in the left hand. Moser’s beautiful playing complimented the fine work of the piano, while his bold romantic melodic lines in the Scherzo movement were accompanied by dazzling piano work in the very fast and difficult Scherzo. The third movement Adagio molto espressivo is a most unusual movement, having the qualities of a recitative dialogue with its plaintive and pleading lines of the cello answered by calming motives from the piano. Moser’s rich tone and expressive high notes were completed by Petersen’s sensitive and reflective answering phrases.
The comfort and natural ease of the ensemble did not diminish from the most exciting finish of the final movement. Its main canonic theme felt comforting, amiable, and quiet, and in its final iteration received pianissimo treatment, but the cyclical, episodic material surrounding it built in speed and force to its heroic conclusion.
A strong ovation earned us a luscious desert in the form of Saint-Saëns simple but poignant Le Cygne (The Swan) from the Carnival of the Animals.