Returning by request of Carol Woods Retirement Community after four years, Nathan Leyland delivered a spectacular cello recital, with works spanning 220 years of incredible music. Joined by pianist Scott Marosek on the two latest compositions, Leyland explained that all of these works have been part of his repertoire since early in his career, adding that his approaches to them have evolved through years of study. These monumental composers – Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – are starkly different from one another, yet the programming was such that it showcased a cohesive, virtuosic performance. Leyland is the principal cellist with the North Carolina Opera and the Fayetteville Symphony, has performed with many heavy-hitter ensembles in the state, and also teaches at Ravenscroft, St. Mary’s School, and the Community Music School in Raleigh.

The earliest work, composed sometime between 1717-1723, was J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C, S.1009, which is notoriously difficult, not helped by the fact that there are no surviving annotated editions. Leyland utilized a crisp, dry timbre that allowed every note to sing with great precision. His technical work was phenomenal, and he still seemed visibly to enjoy the music he played. There was richness and passion and some liberty in rubato, but never enough to suppress Bach’s delicate writing. The fourth-movement Sarabande, for example, showed off one of the widest, quickest shifts I have ever seen – a flick of the hand that could be missed in a blink – but his vibrato never faltered. The final movement, a Gigue, was the most dazzling, with rapid note passages that sounded like multiple cellos together. It was robust and deft, right on the edge of wild but never quite out of control.

Joined by Marosek for the next work, Leyland took us almost a hundred years forward, to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, one of Beethoven’s later works that makes it sound at least two hundred years away from Bach. The cello and piano together blended warmly, utilizing the best qualities of each instrument: the power of the cello and the depth of the chords of the piano. The Allegro con brio flitted between bursts of energy and pleasant sonority.

The sonata’s second movement had some issues in both the opening and the closing chordal motion, very chilling parts that lost a little of their effectiveness due to the cello and piano not lining up on attacks very well – it seemed like Marosek wasn’t always watching for Leyland’s cues, or Leyland couldn’t catch Marosek’s attention at the right moments due to their seating position. However, the middle of the movement was passionately romantic with tender harmony and came together very nicely. The last Allegro, one of the reasons this piece is so notable, was as played a brilliant representation of very complex energy. The movement is extremely advanced in technical and harmonic ideas for its time and comes just slightly unhinged in its hemiola sections but then satisfactorily resolves into passionate chords so familiar in Beethoven’s writing.

As a finale, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C, Op. 119, was the loudest, most expressive work on the program, richly varied between quiet, suspenseful moments and explosive bursts. I had quizzically noticed the patterns on Leyland’s cello at the beginning of the evening – dark wood, with lighter-grained flame patterns all along the sides and back of the instrument, either sanded into or stained on top of the finish – and this work seemed truly to earn him his flames! At least, they certainly fit the aesthetic by the end of the evening.

Prokofiev’s sonata (1949) is nearly like a ballet in its ever-changing moods, and Leyland delivered a brilliant story in his playing. The Andante grave jumps between brooding quiet and modern, passionate melodies, interspersed with hard pizzicato attacks in places that sometimes seem dramatic and at other times, cheeky. Leyland’s interpretation was delightfully playful, taking us in the Moderato movement through a more conservative melody, reflecting Prokofiev’s response to his compositions previously being banned by the Soviet government because they were too dissonant. While still incredibly dissonant, this work shared a lot with the Beethoven sonata, compositionally, in that they both display complex relationships between suspense and resolution, order and chaos.

The last movement of the Prokofiev, Allegro – Allegro fugato, is flashy and brilliant; Leyland never missed a beat and Marosek fueled the composer’s almost manic energy through another excursion of tonalities and moods. I found myself enthralled by the composition itself, with Leyland and Marosek the vessels through which it was delivered – forgetting, occasionally, how difficult and extraordinary the performance in front of me truly was, on account of their polished, professional delivery. While Leyland joked about getting hot between pieces and had actually taken a pause to remove his jacket and roll up his sleeves before beginning the Prokofiev, his performance was so excellent that it was easy to take for granted! This duo struck a balance between passion and polish like I have never seen, offering a dazzling, powerful performance that was truly a gift.