When a pianist shares the stage with an instrumentalist, there is a tendency to assume that the former is there to accompany the latter. Last night in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, cellist Robert Howard and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur prepared a program of works by composers who tended to be more interested in the idea of a duo being a conversation between equals. These composers were often skilled in keyboard technique and saw no reason for the light of those skills to be hidden under a bushel.
In last night’s program, the earliest of those composers was Ludwig van Beethoven, represented by the last of his five cello sonatas, Opus 102, Number 2, in D major. This is very much music of exchange. Indeed, the opening theme is declared solidly by the piano; and the cello only gets around to matching that declarative rhetoric when the theme returns in the recapitulation. Before that occurs, however, Beethoven provides abundant opportunities for the two soloists to interleave their thematic content, establishing a complementary relationship that endures through the remaining two movements of the sonata. In the last of those movements, the relationship turns playful, reminding us that, while Beethoven may have lost his hearing, he never totally lost his abundant capacity for wit.
The two Opus 102 sonatas were composed in 1815, five years after the birth-year of both Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, both of whose compositions were also on the program. Chopin would receive his first piano lessons in 1816, and Schumann would get started a year later. Both would become piano virtuosi, and both would accumulate a substantial portfolio of works for solo piano that continue to this day to challenge pianists and delight audiences. In addition, both had more than a passing interest in the cello.
Chopin’s interest may have originated from the need to make a good impression with “the right people.” At the age of 18 he was a guest of Prince Antoni Radziwiłł, who, in addition to being Governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, pursued both the cello and composing as serious avocations. Since his daughter, Wanda, was a pianist, Chopin composed for them his Opus 3, a polonaise in C major with a Lento introduction. Towards the end of his short life, in 1845, he returned to the cello, composing his four-movement Opus 65 sonata in G minor, which was the only work on the second half of last night’s recital.
As might be guessed, Chopin did not try to rein in his tendency to write virtuoso passages for the piano. Indeed, as in the Beethoven D major sonata, the piano declares itself assertively in the opening measures. Nevertheless, Chopin clearly appreciated the expressiveness of the cello; and there are no shortage of opportunities for that expressiveness to dominate. However, as is the case with his other sonatas (the three for piano), it is clear that Chopin was much more in his comfort zone when working with shorter forms. Thus, in the inner Scherzo and Largo movements, we encounter the brevity of so much of Chopin’s piano repertoire skillfully translated into a dialog of two instruments, while in the opening movement that dialog tends to get lost behind what seems like a struggle to fit everything into sonata form. The Largo is particularly interesting as a duet for “soprano” and “bass,” in which the instrument trade off on which roles they assume.
The Schumann selection was not composed originally for cello. It was the Opus 73 set of three fantasy pieces written for clarinet and piano in 1849 (the year of Chopin’s death). However, Schumann himself indicated that the clarinet part could also be taken by a violin or a cello. As was the case in the Beethoven sonata, Schumann was primarily interested in how having an additional instrument would add to the texture of interleaving contrapuntal voices. One might almost say he was compensating for not having enough hands at the piano keyboard; and there is an elegant seamlessness to the additional melodic line that, as Schumann seems to have recognized, transcends the sonorities of the instrument itself. All that seems to matter is that the instrument is equally at home in low, middle, and high registers; and this is as true of the cello as it is of the clarinet.
The program also included a brief venture into the middle of the twentieth century with the second of three compositions called “Pampeana” by Alberto Ginastera. The title refers to the pampas of Argentina. The first is for violin and piano, and the third is for full orchestra. The cello “Pampeana” (Opus 21) is distinguished by its energetic and driving rhythms; and here, too, both instrumentalists were on common ground (the vast expanse of a fertile Argentinian plain).
The encore also came from the twentieth century. It was “Nana,” one of the seven arrangements of Spanish folk songs that Manuel de Falla originally composed for voice and piano. One might think that here, finally, the piano would serve only for accompaniment. However, the minimalism of the piano part is there to establish a context of the quiet calm of night in which the vocalist (or, in this case, cellist) softly intones the melody of a gentle lullaby. This is the one song in the set of seven in which the words barely matter, and its arrangement for cello was stunningly effective.
The result was a full evening in which Howard and LaDeur could explore a collection of diverse approaches to dealing with cello and piano as a duo of equals. The only shortcoming was the occasional tendency of the piano to dominate, probably due to the fact that the lid was at full-stick height. In the soft passages LaDeur never failed to match perfectly to Howard’s dynamics; but, when things got louder, Howard could not always muster a forte that would balance against LaDeur’s strength at his keyboard. This was most evident in the Beethoven sonata, whose subtleties may probably be better appreciated when the keyboard is a more appropriate period instrument.