It is not uncommon for principals of major orchestras (in this case, the Philadelphia) to take to other stages as sought-after soloists and chamber players; such is the case with cellist Hai-Ye Ni, whom the Foundation of Chinese Performing Arts welcomed to NEC’s Williams Hall Monday night. Together with her frequent partner, the accomplished pianist Xun Pan, the masterful duo brought well-honed skills to welcome fare.
While a touch too predictable for my taste yet appropriately triumphal, Beethoven’s Twelve Variations in G major on “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes,” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus stood stalwart. Over the set, the effective interweaving testified to the enjoyable collegiality the two players projected. I chose to view this piano-forward work, (titled originally for Piano with the accompaniment of the Cello, like the sonata that followed), as a fanfare for a carefully crafted concert.
In Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 69, in A major, the median of five, written in 1806-8 during his so-called middle period and dedicated to his amateur cellist friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein, Ni and Pan provided a principled version that adhered to Beethoven’s intent. Pan’s shapely phrases, well projected melodies, and elegant runs elicited praise from the many pianists present. Here in glimpses, and more consistently later, Ni’s gorgeous tone and expression emerged. In the initial alla breve of the Allegro ma non tanto Ni introduced the soaring subject, amiably followed by Pan’s flourishing piano entrance and familiar further motifs. The short A minor Allegro molto Scherzo lightened the mood with its syncopation and country-bumpkin humor; a sojourn into A major in its trio followed. Then the Adagio cantabile start of the final movement led to its tuneful Allegro vivace.
Brahms’s Sonata in E Minor for Piano and Cello Op. 38, from 1865 was his first for two instruments. Though certainly a pianistic showcase, it hardly stints on the cello part, and here Ni shone. The first movement includes thematic material from Bach’s Art of Fugue and nods to Beethoven, yet it is fully Brahmsian. The partnership thrived as the composer intended in the first 4/4 Allegro non troppo movement in E minor. The lyrical Allegro quasi Menuetto in A minor morphing to a trio in F-sharp minor suited the duo. The final E minor Allegro combines elements of fugue and sonata to good effect; the players communicated this forcefully.
Beau Soir, an apt title not just for the Debussy piece but for the evening itself, lightened the mood with graceful warmth. Written in 1891 as an art song to a poem by Paul Bourget, it has been transcribed for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd Webber and others.
Chopin’s Introduction et Polonaise Brillante in C Major, Opus 3 (1829) came to us as intended — a lively showpiece—according to many, including the composer. Its introduction is, well, just that, and the Polonaise is captivating, performed here with dazzle and verve.
An encore, the beautiful “Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, rewarded the warmly responsive audience, floating with aristocratic grace.
Cathy Tan Chan has presided over this highly anticipated festival, one of the most welcome additions to Boston’s musical summer fare, since 1989. The concerts run through August 29th.