With the languishing of the local period instrument group Ensemble Courant, historically informed performances of music have become sporadic in our region, being given by former members or occasional visitors. An all-Beethoven recital presented in Person Hall on March 3 by UNC cellist Brent Wissick and Duke pianist Randall Love whetted the appetite for the ultimate fruit of their current series of collaborations: within two years, the duo will present the composer's complete music for cello and piano – all five sonatas and the variations, too – in two marathon concerts. "Marathon" is the operative word; when then-ECU faculty cellist Selma Gokcen and pianist John O'Brien presented these works, they did so in three back-to-back concerts at Meredith College (and elsewhere). In the past, both Love and Wissick have played some but not all of these works on period instruments. According to the fine program notes by Wissick, who has performed and taught Beethoven for some three decades, "The beauty of the 'historical instrument' is not that it will tell me the 'correct' solutions, but that it will make me question and test my solutions of many years."
With a deaf ear toward the noisy HVAC system, it would be easy to imagine the concert room in Person Hall as the ballroom of some Viennese aristocrat's palace. The size and ambience is nearly ideal for playing period instruments, with their markedly quieter dynamics, and especially keyboards such as the mellow fortepiano selected by Love. It is a reproduction of a Graf fortepiano of 1820, with a six-and-a-half-octave range, made by Rodney Regier in 1994. Its more rapid decay of sound, as compared with a modern grand, allows for very clean articulation at fast tempos. The Sonata in F Minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata") (1804-5), has been performed many times in the Triangle, by a number of visiting and local musicians. Once the ears adjusted to the sound world – the fortepiano's fortissimo is barely mezzo-forte on a modern grand – Love's vital and solid interpretation could be relished. Late Beethoven sonatas have received far less local exposure so it was fascinating to hear the composer's penultimate Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (1821), afresh. The magic of Love's sustained line was marred by a memory lapse just into the last movement's fugue.
Wissick used an English cello made by Benjamin Banks (1776), held between his calves, without an endpin. The duo selections sampled the roles of the instruments as reflected by the titles. Twelve Variations on a Theme from Mozart's Magic Flute, Op. 66 (1798), are for piano and cello, and there is much more musical interest in the keyboard part. For many, the Sonata in A, Op. 69 (1807-8), is THE cello sonata. From the outset – it begins with a deep, rich, and soulful melody for the cello alone – the cello is the dominant instrument. For the Variations, Wissick used a light "classical" bow but the more "Romantic" and dynamic Sonata was played with a Tourte bow that was a new tool in the early 19th century. Balance between the instruments was perfect, and phrasing and ensemble were excellent and satisfying. Given Wissick's usual impeccable intonation, I suspect that the room's relative humidity and its effect of the cello's gut strings was a factor in some tarnished notes in the cello's highest range. Love fully explored all the humor possible in the keyboard part of the Magic Flute Variations, and both plumbed the dramatic and emotional depths of the Sonata. This concert was a fine sampler that promised much for the full series to come.