The longtime interest in early music performance practices by several UNC-Chapel Hill music faculty members, namely, cellist Brent Wissick, violinist Nicholas DeEugenio, and pianist Mimi Solomon (not forgetting the contributions made by the late Richard Luby, violin, and Ann Woodward, viola) was on full display in this concert, for which these artists were joined by Barry Bauguess, trumpet, and Leah Peroutka, UNC music faculty violinist, Suzanne Rousso, viola, Robbie Link, bass. They joined forces to present an exciting though unusual evening of French Romantic chamber music, in addition to tales of two instruments.

The first instrumental tale involved the piano used in this performance. It is an original piano made by the famous Pleyel firm of piano makers in Paris, started in 1807 by Ignace Pleyel, an Austrian active in Paris as a composer and music publisher as well as running his business in making fine pianos. He was well-known across Europe for the quality of his pianos, which was maintained through four generations of Pleyels before merging in 1961 and again in 1976 with other firms. Chopin is reported to have travelled several times from Poland to Paris to play the Pleyel pianos in their showrooms and keep up with their developments.

What relevance does this story have for this concert? To set the stage, Thomas Kenan, III, whose philanthropical family has long-time connections with UNC-Chapel Hill, owned an original Pleyel piano, dating from 1840, which he recently refurbished and donated to the UNC Music Department. It is quite possible that Chopin may have played this very piano in the demonstration salon of the Pleyel shop in Paris. Gasp!

Wissick and Solomon opened the program with Gabriel Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 109 (1918), a work sculpted artfully with complex rhythms and rich melodies and set in the context of three concurrent musical lines located in the cello, piano right-hand, and piano left-hand. This arrangement required adroit musicianship from the two performers, for often the main beats had rests, which can throw performers off, but not Wissick and Solomon. They made it seem easy. In addition, Solomon performed on the 1840 Pleyel piano, whose sound, due to its construction, rings with more gentleness than that of modern Steinways, noted for their brilliant overtones. Further, Wissick was playing a cello with gut strings.

In this impressionistic piece, the performers took great care to maintain wonderful balance among three important elements (1-melody, 2-often figuration, 3-often bass or counter melodies). This appears to be an especially difficult task because Fauré frequently changes the assignment of these textures among the cello, piano right hand, and piano left hand. This technique of rapidly shifting musical materials does not appear, on the whole, in music from earlier periods. In this compositional style, performers are placed in the position of responding quickly to these fast-moving textural changes, bringing out one element for a few measures, perhaps quickly underplaying the next few measures honoring its lesser place in the soundscape.

The players’ response to rhythmic figures, which often lacked definition from his frequent use of silence on normally strong beats, reveal their keen sense of rhythm. In several instances, Solomon carefully guided her quick fingers up fast runs without a trace of a defined beat. With great skills, the two musicians met at the top of those runs with an uncanny rhythmic precision. Wissick’s tone rose upward with a rich timbre as he cultivated a sweetness that was enhanced by the gut strings. All three movements of the Fauré were organized rhythmically around either constant eighth-notes or sixteenth-notes, which created a very busy atmosphere for the listener. This composition would have left me in a state of reverie had I let it, which is a compliment to their fine collaboration.

For the other work of the evening, Saint-Saëns’ Septet for Trumpet, Strings and Piano in E-flat, Op. 65 (1881), Solomon, and Wissick were joined by other members of the UNC music faculty, DiEugenio and Peroutka, and guest artists Bauguess, Baroque trumpet (and recording artist), Russo, and Link. All the string players used gut strings.

The tale of the second instrument revolved around Bauguess’ Baroque trumpet in low F that he had recently purchased. It had been made by Andre Cortois in Paris in 1885. These trumpets, in use by the late 19th-century contemporary Parisian orchestras, produce a subdued tone that suited this Septet unusually well – in the company of the Pleyel piano, and all those gut strings. This combination of instruments, outfitted for 19th-century performance, produced beautiful sounds, and the blend achieved by the seven players and their instruments was among the best instrumental blends this writer has ever heard!

The Saint-Saëns follows well-known Baroque forms but Romantic era sounds are distinctly present. The first movement, a rousing Préamble offset by calm moments, references Baroque harmonies and scoring, but maintains a Romantic flair, in which the ensemble played with crispness and precision, and above all, with abundant energy. The second movement, a Menuet, follows the Classical style, ornamented by striking pianistic chordal arpeggios handled so well by Solomon. The third movement, Intermède Andante, gave Wissick and Rousso moments of rich sounds in passages, and offered us a chance to hear Rousso’s lush and beautiful sound. Peroutka made a sensitive, attentive contribution to the ensemble, along with that of Link, whose part doubled and enriched the bass lines of the cello, firmly strengthening the foundation of the group. The fourth movement, Gavotte et Final, provides a rousing close, which the performers developed with great flair. After the final chord, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation with hands clapping high into the air, and yelling bravos – obviously very pleased with their experience of this evening’s concert. Yes, this was quite a concert!

Afterwards, Wissick invited the audience members to come up front to play one key on the new piano, if they wished. Many played their key, as well as taking photos of the stunningly beautiful piano, now in mint condition. The concert was graciously supported by Martha Hsu and the family of Gabriella Falk.

Edited/corrected/updated 10/16/19.