Given Beethoven’s considerable compositional output, it’s somewhat surprising that there is relatively little music for cello with piano or, as the master himself put it, for piano with cello. There are five sonatas, two each written in 1796 and 1815, respectively, and published in pairs in 1797 and 1817, plus a singleton dating from 1807-8, published the following year. There are also three sets of variations, one on a theme by Handel and two more on themes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, two from the same year as the early sonatas and the third one from 1801. That’s all. And there seem to be no surviving strays, no odd movements or fragments, as is the case in some other genres. The whole lot can handily be performed in two programs lasting less than two hours each, as was the case over the weekend starting July 11, when pianist William Ransom, of Emory University, and cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, of the Eroica Trio, performed this music in pairs of programs given as part of the 27th annual Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival.

The festival is one of the great albeit largely hidden cultural treasures of Western NC. Concerts are presented on Fridays and Sundays in the Gershon-Cohn Hall of the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center, in Highlands, and on Saturdays and Mondays in the Carlton-Ollift Meeting Room in the Albert Carlton – Cashiers Community Library, in Cashiers, which is approximately 10 miles east of Highlands on Highway 64. The Highlands PAC is the larger of the two venues, with a substantial stage and close-in seating for slightly over 200 people. There is a smaller, lower, much shallower platform in the Carlton room, which seats around 125 and which is even more intimate than the festival’s “main” venue. Both facilities are graced with small Steinway grands which, for these Beethoven programs, were fully open. The instrument in Highlands sounds a bit more solid than the shallower-sounding one in Cashiers, but neither was in the least bit inappropriate in this context, and in fact both were a good deal better suited to this music than the keyboard behemoths often encountered nowadays in programs for cello and piano. These instruments balanced extremely well with Sant’Ambrogio’s c.1715 Matteo Goffriller cello.

Performances devoted entirely to the music of a single composer can be very special opportunities for in-depth exploration for both performers and listeners. Likewise, complete cycles of works by important composers — or of the complete works in certain genres by those composers — can be life-shaping events for serious music lovers. There are often enough traversals of all the Beethoven symphonies and string quartets; less frequently the sonatas — for keyboard, for piano and violin, for piano and cello — and the piano trios turn up, too. Even in North Carolina, we’ve been able to hear all these works from time to time over the years, with multiple performances of the symphonies, sometimes spread out over whole seasons or several years — and of the concerti and masses, too. One takes these opportunities as they present themselves; their comparative rarity almost (but never completely) precludes complaints about the (presumably superficial) lack of variety in the ensuing concerts.

When the summer season was announced, the HCCMF mini-Beethoven festival looked as if it would be one of the highlights, particularly since the performing artists are at the very tops of their games, and indeed the resulting performances, virtually devoid of blemishes, were among the finest readings of these scores heard in this critic’s lifetime of listening and study. The artists seem particularly compatible, technically, artistically, and emotionally, so they tend to think and play as if twinned. Overall, the concerts were so good, so refined, so polished, and so engaging that one immediately thought that recordings should be made, and indeed that is a possibility — following planned repeats at Emory University, several other southern institutions of higher learning, and (with luck) New York. (We’ll do our best to report the locations of other performances in the South, at least, for these programs are certainly worth a trip!)

As might be surmised by this point, the programs were splendidly realized. The first one featured one of the “early” sonatas (No. 1, in F, Op. 5/1) and one of the “late” ones (No. 5, in D, Op. 102/2), sandwiching the stand-alone “middle” work (No. 3, in A, Op. 69). (It may be worth noting that the assignment of periods here is somewhat arbitrary.) Program two brought the three sets of variations (WoO 45, Op. 66, and WoO 46; the mid-period opus number reflects the fairly late publication of an early work of the same vintage as the first of these) plus the two remaining sonatas, in inverse order of composition (No. 4, in C, Op. 102/1 [incorrectly listed in the festival’s program book, although the movement titles and notes, by David Finckel and Michael Feldman, were for the work that was played], and No. 2, in G Minor, Op. 5/2). The arrangement of pieces in the two programs made wonderful sense in historical and artistic terms, providing the Alpha and Omega of Beethoven’s music for this combination of instruments in the opening concert and enabling the performance of the variations in one superb (and exceedingly rare) gulp, with the Magic Flute items — [7] Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” and [12] on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” — coming one after the other. (For the record, the opening work on the second program was the set of [12] Variations on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes,” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus.)

Throughout the eight readings, there was awesome intensity and passion, balanced as needed by heartfelt introspection, often leavened with measures of mystery and spirituality not always encountered in isolated, non-cyclical performances. Ransom was an ever-watchful partner, and Sant’Ambrogio routinely looked back, over her right shoulder, whenever she needed to assist in the coordination. Only once or twice during the entire run was the cello tone slightly less than one might have expected— those brief instances both occurred at the end of the second movement of Op. 69, most likely due to a surfeit of artistic passion in one of the sonata’s most exciting sections. It clearly wasn’t the most exciting section for the audience, however: applause erupted after the stem-winder that is the second movement of Op. 5/2, and the ovation lasted long enough to be acknowledged with smiles by both artists. Mention of this prompts yet another reflection on the transports of unending delight that this pair of concerts provided: these players seemed to love what they were doing, virtually from start to finish. Rarely has such pleasure on the parts of performing artists been so evident, so often. It was in effect the cap on an extraordinary musical journey presented by Ransom, Sant’Ambrogio, and the management and staff of the HCCMF. Well done!

Notes: The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival continues with performances through August 10; for details, click here. This festival is roughly a third as old as the nearby Brevard Music Festival, which seems to attract somewhat more interest and which also offers some notable chamber music experiences. We urge visitors to southwestern NC to include both on their itineraries.

And Triangle readers may wish to note this sentence from Sant’Ambrogio’s current bio: “Highlights of this season are … World Premieres of works by Kevin Puts and a new concerto by wunderkind Jay Greenberg.”