Cellist Cicely Parnas made a welcome return to North Carolina with an audacious program of mostly twentieth century works leavened with Classical and Romantic morsels. In all but one work she was expertly supported by pianist/composer Peter John. This was the penultimate concert in the 35th Classical Concert Series, under the aegis of the Arts Council of Moore County, and held in the intimate Sunrise Theater.

The first appetizer was the Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte), WoO 46 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This set probably dates from 1801, and the composer treats both instruments equally. Essentially the piano takes the part of Pamina with Papageno’s responses taken by the cello. The wonderfully rich, warm sound of Parnas’ 1712 Giovanni Grancino was immediately striking and remained so throughout her concert. Her intonation and phrasing was excellent. The Steinway’s lid was fully raised, and John scaled his dynamics ideally to support Parnas. His trills and decorative touches were delightful.

Parnas spun and wove a seamless mournful melody throughout the Vocalise of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Music lovers wistfully regret that Johannes Brahms burnt wholesale most of his early works that failed his standards. Many of us wish Paul Hindemith had torched far too many of works that are too workmanlike. He was a master of writing for many instruments. Luckily, there are good musical qualities in his Solo Sonata for Cello, Op. 25, No. 3. It is in five movements arranged symmetrically with two aggressive, longer movements that bookend a pair of playful short movements surrounding a long, melodic center. Quotes from a note by Jeremy Grimshaw, “Strained double stops,” “extreme registral shifts,” about the first movement or “dark chordal sawings” about the finale, gave this listener trepidations.

Parnas made the best possible case for Hindemith’s Solo Sonata. She “softened” the aggressive portions of the first and last movements. She brought out the playful qualities of the second movement with nice embellishments. All the aching melancholy of the middle movement were sustained beautifully. The minute-long fourth movement gave ample scope for Parnas’ clear articulation of fast passages. She brought a surprising melodic richness to the fierce exploitation of the lower range in the finale. Parnas’ grandfather, Leslie Parnas, made a recording of this work.

Composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was imprisoned in Stalag VIII A near Görlitz in Saxony. A prison guard provided pencils and paper. Fellow prisoners were violinist Jean Le Boulaire, clarinetist Henri Akoka (both had their instruments), and cellist Etienne Pasquier. Messiaen composed his eight movement Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for these instruments and piano. For its premiere on January 15, 1941, a cello with a missing string and a badly out of tune upright piano were found. This winter debut took place outside in 22 degrees Fareneheit (below zero) weather before 5,000 prisoners. Mystical Catholicism and exploitation of instrumental color are central to the composer’s style. The 5th movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” is scored for cello and piano. It treats Jesus as the Word and features an infinitely measured phrase for cello over an achingly spare keyboard.

Parnas and John turned in a deeply moving interpretation. Parnas’ palette of tonal color was refined and her pacing of the melodic line evoked a sense of infinity. John brought out all the stark beauty of the keyboard part.

The Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 40 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) was composed in 1934, the year during which spread of the creative vise of Socialist Realism began. The composer was seeking a new “purity of language.” The same sarcastic style of his large symphonic works is present. Its four movements are abounding with mocking and despairing music. Two stoical lyrical themes are given conventional sonata form in the first movement. The following brash scherzo features aggressive bowing and a heavy-handed melody in the keyboard. The slow movement juxtaposes a mournful cantilena with a passionate yearning for hope before fading into silence. The sinister finale is full of relentless humor and tremendous forward impetuous before fading into silence.

Parnas and John pulled out all the stops for a searing interpretation of this masterpiece. Parnas’ savage attacks were mixed with hushed long spun eerie melodies. Articulation of the fastest passages were clear while her dynamic range was refined. John gave full reins to the composer’s caustic keyboard writing.