A marvelous evening of chamber music, mostly, brightened Stewart Theatre and the hearts and minds of a small crowd of folks on the evening of March 28, thanks to two of NCSU's most venerable and esteemed artists, cellist Jonathan Kramer and pianist Phyllis Vogel. Both are active as teachers and performers, and both appear frequently here and elsewhere. It's our loss that it's been so long since we've heard either of them in recital.
The program was trimmed somewhat since it was first announced – an F sharp etude by Stravinsky that would have added spice to the mix fell by the wayside – but even so, the lineup was more than generous. It wasn't terribly long, but it demanded much of both artists and the audience, and the readings were consistently engaging, too, so there was little opportunity for slacking off at any point, for anyone.
Vogel provided informative program notes that surely helped newcomers to the music. The title of the program – "Six Degrees of Separation" – was not clarified in the notes, however, and the reason for this concert appearing under the banner of the "Women in Music" series and its relation to Women's History Month were, aside from the pianist, likewise mysteries, since all the music was by men.
Vogel got things underway with three admirable and intriguingly contrasted solo pieces – Rachmaninov's Preludes in G and g sharp minor, from Op. 32, and a Scriabin etude. This programming was interesting in that the first one is wildly atypical Rachmaninov, soft-spoken and reflective in ways that even the "love themes" in some of the bigger works aren't, while the second one is more dramatic. Then the Scriabin – which sounds like it ought to have been by Rachmaninov – rounded out the set. Vogel's playing has always been technically assured and musically insightful, and it was again on this occasion.
Kramer joined her for Kabalevsky's generally somber Cello Sonata, written for Rostropovich. A spoken introduction helped smooth the way. It was easy to imagine the reception the piece enjoyed at its premiere, and there was some wonderful playing from both artists. Sometimes passion is best expressed in quiet, reflective ways, as in this work. There's power aplenty here and there, and the partnership the two artists clearly enjoyed was palpable. Observers may have been distracted somewhat by the piano score, which appeared old and yellowed and on the verge of collapse, but it stayed put. In the finale there was a momentary coordination glitch but the artists went back a page or two, and the net result was at once a relaxation of tension and a setup for the work's spectacular finale. The performance justifiably drew some of the evening's warmest and most prolonged applause.
After intermission, the splendid transcription by Jules Delsart of Franck's celebrated Violin Sonata was the main event. Fiddlers love it for lots of reasons, but to these ears the cello version has always had a lot more going for it, and it was a delight to hear it again in Stewart. People complain about the hall's acoustics – it's very hard to hear in some places on the stage – but the sound was good and the reading was superb. In its wake, Bartók's Rumanian Dances were like icing on the cake. It was a nice touch on Kramer's part to note that the edition he used was prepared by Luigi Silva, who was the subject of UNCG's first big cello bash, in March 2004. Joel Krosnick played them on that occasion, accompanied by Gilbert Kalish. The NCSU performance was if anything even more gripping, since the audience was small and a sense of real intimacy prevailed. These six little numbers are like encore pieces, but each is a separate and distinct entity. It was just what was needed after the Russian first half and that big dose of French (Belgian, actually) Romanticism. The crowd went away into the mists delighted.