A modest audience was on hand in Ernest Nelson Music Room for rarely-heard music presented under the auspices of the Church of Beethoven. Its “doctrine and services” are to present musicians in hour-long concerts that will allow players and audiences to mingle afterward. Their “doxology” is to sandwich musical works around spoken word such as poetry or a reading from some book and a two minute “celebration of silence.” The beloved chamber music venue of the East Campus of Duke University is the ideal site for their “rites.” The presence of mostly well-behaved elementary and pre-schoolers shifted the music-lovers’ age curve well away from its usual gray-haired dominance.

Pianist Jeremy Thompson had already demonstrated his considerable power with Liszt at a Mallarmé Chamber Players’ sampler-outing at Carol Woods (which I heard) and in their regular concert reviewed by CVNC . Before playing the Sonata in A-flat, Hob. 46 of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), he told of how he had become enthusiastic about the imagination and invention in the composer’s too neglected keyboard repertoire. This is one of Haydn’s longest late piano sonatas and reflects the influence of Empfindsamkeit – the style of heightened sensibility so characteristic of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. This is immediately heard in the unexpected, irregularly phrased opening. The first movement abounds with “ornaments and sighing appoggiaturas [and] is much larger in scale, expressive richness, and variety of rhythm and texture” than the composer’s earlier sonatas, according to Richard Wigmore in his note for Hyperion CDA67554 accompanying Marc-André Hamelin’s Haydn Piano Sonatas. The slow movement is one of the composer’s most poetic and is in the “subdominant D-flat,” a forbidden key in the eighteenth century. The exuberant finale has a striking theme. Thompson played with great elegance and crisp articulation, perfectly capturing every unexpected twist and turn in the first movement. He brought out the depth of feeling in the slow movement and all the virtuosity needed for the high spirits of the finale.

The Spoken Word was delivered by cellist Marc Moskovitz, who provided background about the life of late Romantic composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942). Moskovitz is the author of Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony, regarded by some critics as the definitive biography. The mature Zemlinsky taught composition to Arnold Schoenberg and later became his brother-in-law. He also taught Alma Schindler, the object of his unrequited love, who was to marry Gustav Mahler, among many others. Zemlinsky was perhaps the last of the tradition of a composer who was also a performer and a highly regarded conductor. The young composer was enthralled by Johannes Brahms, and Moskovitz read from the chapter “Zemlinsky, the Brahmsian” in his book, describing the nervous young composer’s first meeting with his idol who went over the former’s quintet. The Cello Sonata was given one performance in 1894 and the score was lost until The Library of Congress (which was outbid) informed the cellist of it being offered at auction in 2006. He also pointed out and demonstrated features of the Cello Sonata, which was receiving its North Carolina premiere.

After the two minutes of silence, Moskovitz and Thompson returned to the stage to play the Sonata for Cello and Piano, was composed a few months after Zemlinsky’s first meeting with Brahms. The first of its three movements, marked “Mit Leidenschaft”(“with passion”), thoroughly exploits a two note motif. This reflects the composer’s exhaustive classical foundation which Moskovitz said he never quite abandoned. The slow movement finds the composer giving vent to his most youthful passions. Moskovitz said the lilting, warm finale features more contrapuntal writing than his mature works but ends quietly, which is very typical and perhaps why the composer faded into obscurity. Anyone who likes tonal, warm works in the late Romantic style will find the Cello Sonata a winner. Zemlinsky’s themes recall Brahms.

Moskovitz and Thompson were perfectly balanced despite the piano’s lid being fully raised; both produced full, warm tones. Moskovitz was playing a truly new cello, just completed a few weeks before by local luthier Shinichiro Yoshikai. The cellist’s intonation was precise and his articulation was crystal clear. Particularly attractive were evocative pizzicato episodes in the finale along with folk dance rhythms worthy of Dvorák.

The Church of Beethoven was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico by cellist Felix Wurman who passed away in 2009. His sister Candida is married to luthier Shinichiro Yoshikai, and she founded the second Church of Beethoven in Durham.

Thompson has recorded a CD of Haydn sonatas scheduled to be released soon. The Naxos label has a recording of the Zemlinsky Cello Sonata (8.570540) with fine notes by Richard Whitehouse.