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The brief but well-written descriptive program notes for the second in the new chamber music series, Overtones, given at the Ruggero Piano Shop on Hargrove Road in Raleigh at 3:00 p.m. on June 29, had a title, that at the head of this review. The musicians were the brother of the shop's owner, pianist John Ruggero (author of the program notes) and cellist Jonathan Kramer of NCSU. They offered a program of three cello sonatas, all by composers who were pianists and presented almost in chronological order, in the shop's performance space, Bösendorfer Hall, whose stage is graced with a 9'6" Imperial Grand from its namesake manufacturer. The program seemed to be in many ways a showcase for the instruments as well as their players.
The recital played to a large if not full house and began precisely on time because the cellist had an evening performance in Boone; there were a greater than usual number of latecomers. The opening work was Ludwig van Beethoven's first cello sonata Op. 5/1, composed in 1797, for which this piano, with its smooth, mellow tones, seemed particularly well suited. The balance seemed just right in this exuberant, youthful work filled with rapid finger work for the keyboard, which dominated the cello enough to make this reviewer wonder if the composer described the work as a sonata for piano with violoncello as he did his violin sonatas.
This was followed by Gabriel Fauré's first cello sonata, Op. 109, dating from 1918. This is a much more serious piece, though by no means somber, in which the accent is on melody and harmonies and the cello is more prominent, though not dominant. Balance did not seem quite as good here, with the piano occasionally drowning out the cello. Fauré's music is refined and elegant for the most part, and the piano is generally a more discrete than flamboyant partner such as was the case with the Beethoven; Ruggero adapted his playing accordingly.
After a brief intermission, Sergei Rachmaninov's sole cello sonata, Op. 19, composed in 1901, was offered. This is a large Romantic work where the accent seems to be on lushness and bravura, and the musicians furnished both. Unfortunately the balance between the instruments suffered further with the cello being covered more frequently and the piano seeming overly loud. The two musicians are more nearly equal partners in this work than in the Fauré even. Ruggero played the entire program with the lid fully open, but I do not think the solution should be found in the small stick. Players still need to learn the acoustics of this new performance space and how to adjust their volumes accordingly, and it will take time, patience, practice, and experience.
Aside from the issues of occasional bad balance and volume, however, there was virtually nothing to fault in the performance, which was truly outstanding. In his opening comments, Kramer mentioned that the duo first played together in 1986, and that they enjoyed playing together but were not able to do it that often, especially in recent years, and he revealed that Ruggero was his favorite piano accompanist. They played like professional duos who perform together constantly even though their presentations do not occur with anywhere near that rate of frequency. This reviewer has heard numerous of them and has always taken immense pleasure in their music making. Indeed, one of my most memorable recitals was one that included their performance of the cello transcription of César Franck's violin sonata held at the NCMA some years back. The Overtones audience was impressed and appreciative as well, calling the musicians back for additional bows after each sonata and numerous ones at the end of the afternoon.
They will be playing together again, along with two other musicians: clarinetist Linda Julian (the Ruggeros' sister) and her husband bassoonist Jon Julian, in the same space at 3:00 p.m. on July 20. Mark your calendars now.
[Lightly edited when retired to archives.]