Then Elena Nezhdanova and Roman Placzek came on stage. Placzek opened with a greeting in French and then a little stand-up humor. He somewhat apologetically identified himself as Czech, not French; he said that after the Czech revolution in 1989 he was offered the chance to study a foreign language; the choices were Russian and French. "Who studies French?" he asked. "Ballerinas," was the answer. So he said it was a class of four string players and six ballerinas; quite lovely. Placzek is artistic director of the North Carolina Bach Festival and principal cellist of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle in Durham. He, Nezhdanova, and Grijda Spiri comprise the Europa piano trio.
There's nothing like a powerful opening to set a program going in the right direction. Such was Saint-Saëns's "The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals, here arranged for one piano and cello by Julian Lloyd Webber. Both Nezhdanova and Placzek attacked with the self-assured intensity of professional musicians whose specialty is 19th century music. Placzek's cello had very powerful sound, more than standing up to the equally big sound of the Music House Model C Steinway of 1887. And the dear "Swan" – such a beautiful and accessible piece – seemed to thrill the audience.
Equally accessible were three pieces by Fauré: Pavane (Opus 50), Sicilienne (Opus 78), and Après un Rêve (Opus 7, no. 1), all also arranged by Lloyd Webber. Nezhdanova and Placzek played with incredible coordination, especially considering that they had chosen to sit in such a relationship as not to be at all easy to see each other. The Sicilienne is particularly interesting musically because the dotted rhythm characteristic of the siciliana occurred almost entirely in the piano part, with a much more even meter in the cello line.
Returning to the stage alone, Nezhdanova played "Cloches à travers les feuilles" (1) and "Poissons d'or" (6) from Debussy's Images, Book 2. In preparation for playing from memory, Nezhdanova had a bit of a wrestle with the counter-intuitive music desk-with-candle-stands of the Steinway, but soon had it folded down and pushed back out of the way. She paused for a second or two, then dove right in to a carefully controlled execution of "Cloches." There is a customary four-note pattern that always signifies bells to European composers; Nezhdanova brought this out very delicately. Her playing was beautifully controlled and extremely steady rhythmically. Her rendition of "Poissons" had the charm of a large clear tank of these fish, flicking their tails and rising to the top and sinking to the bottom.
Following intermission, the duo returned to perform "Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus" from the Quatour pour la fin du temps by Olivier Messiaen. Nezhdanova briefly discussed this piece, especially in the context of her personal fondness for the works of Messiaen. She explained its basis in the beginning language in the Gospel of John and its relationship to the beginning and end of time. Her playing was impeccable; Placzek's ppp cello playing was amazingly beautiful.
The program concluded with a bravura performance of Chopin's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 65. Placzek explained that the extremely idiomatic cello part is a result of Chopin's close association with the brilliant cellist Auguste Franchomme; Chopin dedicated the sonata to Franchomme. Both performers approached the sonata with satisfying self-assurance, turning out a flawless performance. Placzek has a personal habit of making a very long inhalation at the beginning of any important entry. This was not unpleasant and added to the feeling of suspense before many places with strong musical emphasis. The second movement, Scherzo, Allegro con brio, provides no place at all for the performers to rest; nonetheless, Nezhdanova briefly broke character and gave a brief but charming style. The third movement, Largo, dolce cantabile, was a sweet almost-lullaby. The Finale, allegro, was a piece of sustained power and grandeur.
The Nezhdanova-Placzek Duo provided a perfect addition to the enjoyment of French week by the full-house audience at the Music House.