Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is best known for his huge output of poetic and romantic scores for his instrument, the piano. Much less known is a handful of chamber music works for keyboard and strings. Even more exceptional is the opportunity to hear these works played on period instruments. This made the imaginative program, presented by faculty cellist Brent Wissick and visiting UNC Greensboro faculty pianist Andrew Willis in the cavernous acoustics of Hill Hall on the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus, all the more welcome. Both artists are well known for their frequent regional concerts and their numerous recordings of early music ranging from the Baroque through Romantic Periods. The inspiration for this concert was Willis’ acquisition of an extraordinary 1848 Pleyel grand piano of the type preferred by Chopin. Wissick used a late 19th century German cello, a gift to the music department, with all gut strings and with a 19th century bow.
Five brief works by Chopin, Field, and Mendelssohn gave a chance to sample the Pleyel solo and in ensemble. Such works were typical of the fare presented in the cultured salons that Chopin frequented. Mendelssohn composed his Variations Concertantes for Cello and Piano, Op. 17, in 1829 for his brother Paul. Both instruments share the song-like theme and there is ample opportunity to display the unique mellow timbre of the Pleyel. The balance between cello and piano was excellent, and both players phrased with style and great care for dynamics while bringing out a wide palette of colors. Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words” for Cello and Piano, Op. 109, was composed in 1845 for cellist Lisa Cristani, a successful pioneering professional woman musician. Her specialty was performing cello transcriptions of opera arias for male singers, exploiting the instrument’s tenor and baritone ranges. According to Wissick’s extensive program notes, this work is one of the most popular student solos in the repertoire. It was delightful to listen as the singing line was played in the upper and lower ranges of the cello and taken up by the piano. Wissick’s intonation was immaculate and the musical lines were smooth as silk.

The Pleyel’s unique sound characteristics and Willis’ sensitive artistry were on display in two solo works. Irishman John Field (1782-1837) created the title and content of the nocturne which found in Chopin’s compositions its highest development. The atmospheric and nostalgic mood of the nocturne with its coloratura passages occasionally interrupting the melodic line readily appealed to the younger Polish composer. Field’s Nocturne No. 4 in A Major (1817) has plaintive inflexions and arpeggios. Willis brought out his piano’s bright tone as each element of the score was crisply articulated. The end was visually impressive with a chord played with crossed hands. Chopin’s Préludes are sketch-like fragments that reflect the soul of the Romantic musician and encapsulate a mood or fleeting impression. Willis balanced all the demands of Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 (1841), perfectly, projecting cleanly detailed arpeggios and unbroken musical lines.

Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise for Cello and Piano, Op. 3 (1829-30), was played with great verve, bringing out the rhythmic vitality of the Polish dance form. The centerpiece of the recital was Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 (1845-46). Lively dance forms haunt the opening Allegro, scherzo, and vivacious finale. These surround an ethereal and heart-felt Largo. At two points, one in the first movement and another in the finale, the loudest piano passages briefly covered the cello part. Otherwise the duo turned in exemplary performances. The slow movemen’s tempo was perfect and the musical line unfolded seamlessly.

In view of the importance of this 1848 Pleyel grand piano, I will quote at length a description of this type of instrument’s sound by a contemporary Parisian piano technician found by Stephen Birkett and reprinted in Willis’ program note. The piano has “…a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous. The striking of the hammers has been designed to give a sound that is pure, clear, even, and intense. The carefully made hammers produce — when one plays softly — a sweet and velvety sound that gradually increases in brightness and volume as one applies more pressure on the keyboard.” Every music lover ought to attend any opportunity to hear Willis play this wonderful instrument in recital.