Several things about the experience of a recital by cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Itamar Golan, the second concert in the 71st season of the Duke Artists Series, given on October 24 in Page Auditorium, continued to nag at the back of my mind. Years of trial and error have taught me that the best sound in Page is to be found in the mezzanine and balcony with more variable results down below, in the orchestra section, and the worst under the balcony overhang. Fate placed me under the balcony, where the sound of the entire first half of the concert was anemic and dull. At intermission, I moved forward and found a 20% improvement in the fullness of the sound. In intermission and post-concert conversations, it was amazing to find how “Rashomon like” other peoples’ perception was, depending upon where they were seated in the hall. From both seats I sampled, the pianist seemed to be unusually restrained, holding back his tone and volume despite having the lid fully up. An experienced musical friend seated on the right aisle found that the pianist tended to swamp the cellist. Page is a terrible place for small chamber music ensembles and I don’t doubt that each person had a different impression of the recital.

The music of the first half of the concert failed to engage my interest. First came Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D. 821, called the “Arpeggione” because it was originally composed for that six-stringed instrument shaped, fretted and tuned like a guitar but played with a bow like a cello. The first movement thoroughly exploits the tenor range of the cello. Though I don’t suffer from absolute pitch, I sensed slight intonation problems in Haimovitz’s playing at the beginning. Perhaps he just needed to warm up, for countless exposed high notes throughout the rest of the concert were secure. The last two movements of the Schubert gave him a chance to display the warm tone of his middle range. I loved the drawn out end of the Adagio that led seamlessly to the faster Allegretto.

Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat, Op. 70 was written originally for the horn. After a slow introduction, the cello took up a faster singing theme; later, the lower range was plumbed.

After the more restrained piano parts of the first two works (perhaps also due to my location in the hall), I couldn’t help but think that Chopin had no intention of playing background to anyone in his Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C, Op. 3. The coursing piano part, with its plethora of swirling arpeggios, was unmistakable. Cellists may be less drawn to the piece.

Because of both the fuller sound as heard from a different seat and thanks to the greater depth and complexity of the music in the second half of the concert, I was more engaged and satisfied. Hazkarah, by New Jersey-born composer Robert Stern (b.1934), gave full reign to both instruments to explore and exploit their ranges, often independently. The work was commissioned by the RNCM Manchester International Cello Festival and was premiered in May 2001 by Haimovitz. It opens with a singing cello line set against stark piano chords. The piano part is often quite independent of the cello, which plumbs the heights and depths of its range and explores a wide range of string technique. The often despairing tone reflected its subject–the Holocaust and genocide. The composition deserves frequent programming.

The concert ended with a fine performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40. The first movement is dominated by a brooding sense of nostalgia with the cello entering in its high register. I savored some of Haimovitz’s fine “pp” playing. The ironic second movement, with its weaving cello ostinatos, piano treble octaves and eerie glissandos, was riveting. The Largo was Shostakovich at his most despairing, building to a heart-breaking intensity. It ends with a light, sardonic Allegro. Fine as Haimovtz’s performance was, for me he had the disadvantage of my having heard the even more masterful performance of the Violin Sonata by Leila Josefowicz on the N.C. Symphony’s Great Artists Series in Raleigh only weeks earlier.

While I never sensed that Haimovtz was just going through the motions “on professional auto-pilot,” as Pinchas Zukermann is wont to do too often, something besides the dour affect of Page bothered me about much of the concert. One of the Triangle’s truly indefatigable music lovers put it in a nutshell when she said “he played for himself.” I don’t think that I ever sensed any engagement with the audience.