What could be a better mid-week date than a concert for that most romantic of all duos, cello and piano? Who can resist this union of opposites, of horsehair and hammers, of passion and structure, of strength and tenderness? (In the interest of full disclosure, perhaps I should reveal that I make up half of a pianist-cellist marriage and may be rather partial to this particular instrumentation.)

Bonnie Thron, cello, and Carl Banner, piano, just completed their third local performance of an all-sonata program at the retirement community Carol Woods, a treat that was very much appreciated by residents and guests alike. Thron is a local treasure and has quite a following in the area – and deservedly so. Thron’s playing has the delightful quality of being passionate, yet tasteful. It is an especially difficult balance to strike while playing an exclusively Romantic program – yes, Beethoven counts, or at least the Sonata in D does. The cello students in the back of the room may have come for her technical finesse and singular tone, but most of us came because it sounds like the music is playing her, not the other way around. For this concert, she partnered with Banner, a pianist from Maryland. Banner is a founder of Washington Musica Viva, which is responsible for hundreds of performances in the DC area.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in D, Op. 102, No. 2. Full of contrasts, this piece can be a challenge to keep cohesive. At times, the performance suffered from competing artistic interpretations. Banner approached the work with more discipline and structure, while Thron seemed more at ease with this composer and brought more expressivity to her performance. Technically speaking, both musicians accommodated each other, but it was more in the letter than the spirit of true ensemble. That said, the work was still thoroughly enjoyable, especially the intense and unusual final movement fugue. Described by Thron as “wild and cocky,” the piece requires a sustained, high-level intensity – which both performers had in spades.

Carol Woods has the advantage of an enthusiastic and dedicated audience, but the venue has less than desirable acoustics. The room feels at bit like a damp sponge, and the quirks of the piano are unfortunately not at all formulated to mitigate the acoustic issues. With a growly bass and thinner treble register, it is perhaps inevitable that there would be balance problems between the piano and cello. While this presented a significant issue with the Beethoven, it was less of a problem with the more lyrical compositions later in the program.

The second movement of Camille Chevillard‘s Sonata Op. 15 served as a delightful change of pace following the more substantial first piece. Described by Thron as “very French” and evocative of film scores, the piece is animated and intriguing without requiring too much mental commitment on the part of the audience. The decision to follow the intimidating fugue of the last movement of the Beethoven with the Andante con moto, poco scherzando was a solid programmatic choice. Both performers seemed more at ease once the stern Beethoven was out of the way. The later Romantic works appeared to be much more in tune with Banner’s personal pianistic style, and his comfort with the repertoire substantially increased his communication with his partner.

Rather than program notes, Thron addressed the audience directly throughout the program, sharing historical, theoretical, and personal details about the program. For this piece, the story that Thron’s cello probably belonged to the father of the composer, Chevillard, was a piquant reminder that the history of these pieces is not as distant as we often assume.

Chopin’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 65, was the high point of the program. While chamber music was certainly never Chopin’s forte, this piece is lovely and expressive, especially if the listener can forbear comparisons with the Brahms Sonata in E minor – a task that is especially difficult in the second movement. The four-movement piece includes dramatic changes in mood and features extremes of Chopin’s style, from his characteristic lyricism of the Allegro moderato to the playful pomposity of the Scherzo. Both performers were at their most comfortable, collaborating closely together on repertoire that is notoriously soloistic.

All in all, this program was yet another reminder of how delightful it is to be able to catch a free performance by talented artists on any old weekday. Carol Woods has some exciting programs coming soon, please see our calendar for details!