Awadagin Pratt, piano, and Zuill Bailey, cello, were the featured duo on this Raleigh Chamber Music Guild Masters Series program. Both are riding a wave of recognition and acclaim. Pratt, a native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, has seen his reputation as an insightful and intense artist grow among colleagues and the public as well. Bailey, also a graduate of Peabody and the Juillliard School, has seen his career soar as a soloist and enthusiastic chamber musician and through acclaimed recent recordings. Both artists have appeared in the Triangle and in other North Carolina communities before and have broad and growing fan bases. This was their first performance here as a duo.
For openers, we heard Mendelssohn's "Variations concertantes," Op. 17, composed in 1829 when he was in his 20th year. It opens with as lyrical a theme as you would ever want to hear, dominated by the piano over a low pedal point in the cello and then repeated by the cello in the middle register. The first five of the six variations each increase the technical and musical demands of the performers. The last variation returns to the mood of the opening and ends as it began with a sustained cello tone under the piano's closing cadences.
Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, for cello and piano, like much of his chamber music especially, reveals insights into the personal, cultural, and political turmoil he lived through. For this reviewer, this music is to be experienced, not just heard. The first movement, marked "Allegro non troppo," moves through many different moods but seems never far from foreboding and anxiety. The Allegro that follows is playful but a bit sarcastic, perhaps even angry in places. It seemed that Bailey took longer than usual to prepare himself for the slow movement, pausing almost frozen for a few moments before allowing his bow to slide across the strings. This is solemn and somber music, not in a sorrowful or tragic sense but something more personal, more inner. It was stunning to me. The last movement was light, skipping music of a style recognizable as Shostakovich, but still there was just a hint of grimness under it all. This piece was written not long after the disastrous premiere of Lady Macbeth and Stalin's fierce disapproval.
The opening selection after the intermission was Arvo Pärt's "Speigel im Speigel" (mirror or mirrors in the mirror). This is minimalist music based on Pärt's tintinabulation approach, which he bases on to the tones and overtones of bells. It, like much of his music, has an ethereal, hypnotic effect that is pleasant to the ear but not so good when you have lost a couple of hours of sleep because of a late basketball event and then sprung your clock ahead one hour the night before.
Brahms' Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, closed the program (replacing the scheduled Second Sonata). Bailey commented on the pressure the young Brahms lived with as the anointed successor of Beethoven. His hesitation at writing his first symphony led him to experiment with all sorts of sounds and textures in his chamber music, resulting in some interesting effects. Brahms' lush, thick-textured sound can be heard throughout most of his chamber music. This sonata's three movements might be characterized as thick, thicker, and thickest.
Brahms titled both of his cello sonatas "Sonata for Piano and Violoncello," giving clear indication of his intention of equality of both members of the duo. The E minor sonata opens with a lyrical theme, rather sweet and uncomplicated at first. It grows to a dramatic, rather symphonic climax with repeated chords from the piano before calming down to a quiet and passionate conclusion. The second movement, Allegretto quasi Menuetto, moves along with charm and rich melodic and harmonic inventiveness. The final movement is a rousing, rollicking tour de force, amazing in its breathless energy and drive.
Pratt and Bailey were equal to the challenges of the variety of music on this program, playing as a coordinated duo, sensitive to all the subtleties and inner meaning of the music. Such concerts enrich the listener and stir hints of deeper self-understanding which, after all is said and done, is what great chamber music is all about.