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Person Recital Hall is definitely a good place to experience early musical instruments both acoustically and aesthetically. This was proven again Saturday night, November 17, when Stephanie Vial, a cellist active most recently at Duke, and Andrew Willis, a fortepianist on the faculty of UNCG presented a program "A Quarter-Century of Sonatas for Violoncello and Fortepiano." During the fall term, Vial has joined the UNC faculty as a substitute for Brent Wissick during his leave of absence. Since the fall of 2000, she has also served as director of the instrumental Collegium Musicum at Duke University. Willis has been familiar to Triangle audiences since his appearance with Malcolm Bilson in a memorable series of period instrument performances of Beethoven sonatas, all of which were later recorded. Vial wrote the unusually fine program notes for the concert.
The beautifully mellow fortepiano used was the UNC Music Department's Regier copy of a mid-1820 piano by the eminent Viennese builder, Conrad Graf. Vial employed two different cellos. For the Beethoven and Hummel, she selected an 18th-century English instrument with a flattened bridge, gut strings and lower string tension. For the Mendelssohn, she used an Italian cello made in 1850. It had had its original neck restored--American Airlines had done in the original. It had gut strings and a heavier bass bar. Both were played without a floor pin, held between the cellist's calves.
The program opened with Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Grande Sonate, Op. 104 (1824), which featured more of interest for the pianist with lots of sparkling and sometimes bravura passage-work in that part. Often the cellist was left with only interjections and brief comments. Vial's English cello has a wonderfully rich deep sound. The piano part was often bright in color with the extremes of the 5-1/2-octave compass used less often. The second (Romanza) movement featured more equal treatment of both instruments. The piano part in the lively dance-like Allegro vivace un poco often reminded me of the spirit of Chopin. Compared to the Beethoven and Mendelssohn pieces, Hummel was prolific with musical notes, never really making much use of silences.
A splendid performance of Beethoven's Sonata in C, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815), came next. With the smaller sound and quicker decay of the fortepiano, there was never a chance for the cello line to be covered. The deep burnished sound of the English cello contrasted well with the bright sound of the Graf copy. The sustained cantabile was expertly maintained. Some few exposed high notes had a glassy quality. Both executed trills immaculately.
Modern-instrument performances of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's First Sonata, in B-flat, Op. 45 (1838), have left me indifferent to its charms. The combination of the Graf copy and the Italian cello modified for early Romantic music, however, did expose them. This cello sounded much more tenor-like compared to the rich baritone of the English cello used earlier. Unlike the Hummel, the Mendelssohn features the cello. The first movement embodies a sometimes too busy theme and a singing cello line.
Willis realized the piano part resplendently. There were a few scratchy notes and intonation lapses in the first movement. In the Andante, the piano led quickly to an insouciant theme for the cello. There were some lovely pizzicatos. Both artists were well up to the challenges of the fast Allegro assai movement that ended the piece. Some three dozen people had had a princely treat.