Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Wilson & Schmidt

Feb. 20, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Cellist James Wilson and pianist Carsten Schmidt came to town over the weekend to play a pair of Beethoven sonatas, the Duo (2009) for cello and piano by Richmond-based composer Allan Blank and "Ricordanza" by George Rochberg. Their performance was enhanced, but then cut short, by the piano.

Bon Air Presbyterian Church owns a Bechstein, a product of the German piano maker whose instruments have been prized by generations of European keyboard greats (Liszt, Backhaus, Schnabel, Lipatti, Richter) but are not as big a presence on the American concert scene. The Bon Air Bechstein may be the only one played in public in Richmond. Its hefty sonority, bright tone and clarity across all registers have contributed greatly to many performances of solo and chamber music, notably in the Richmond Chamber Players' summertime Interlude series and in some programs of Wilson's Richmond Festival of Music.

In this concert, the German-born Schmidt exploited his familiarity with the Bechstein's tonal qualities to especially fine effect in Beethoven’s two Op. 102 sonatas, in which the piano is as prominent and expressive a voice as the cello. Schmidt could play assertively, and with the muscularity that Beethoven often demands, without thickening sound textures or overbalancing the cello. Wilson, in turn, could play with warmth and nuance without fear of his cello being overpowered by the piano.

All was well – very well, indeed – through the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2. Then the piano's sostenuto pedal failed. Without it, Schmidt was understandably loth to attempt the sonata's slow movement (adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto).

Despite its premature ending, the program was full and rewarding. In addition to robust and expressive Beethoven, Wilson and Schmidt offered a first local hearing of Blank's Duo, an exceptionally fine melding of lyricism with the compositional and instrumental techniques of the modern era. The four-movement work begins with a baritone aria for cello, one of several soulful tunes that showcase the instrument's range and expressive capacity. The piece's more animated sections sound to be rooted in Jewish folk song and European dances; Bartókian rhythms and klezmer-like riffs happily coexist with a barcarolle and a quasi-waltz.

I suspect that this will become one of Blank's most frequently performed works. Having it introduced by such persuasive interpreters as Wilson and Schmidt certainly helps.

The Rochberg "Ricordanza," which borrows a theme from Beethoven’s C major Sonata, Op. 102, No. 1, is a fairly early (1972) case of a composer well-schooled in modernism turning "neo-romantic," building a work around a full-throated lyrical melody. Rochberg went further than most neo-romantics in this piece – its big tune unabashedly echoes Chopin and Schumann; and Wilson and Schmidt played it very much in that spirit.