Among the past several seasons' most intriguing concerts have been programs that ultimately encompassed complete traversals of all the music for cello and piano by Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) by cellist Brent Wissick and Andrew Willis, faculty members of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro, respectively. The first series of these programs was in 2008. The second series began on November 6 of this year. In the ensuing time, these artists have recorded all these works in a studio, and their CD is scheduled to be released in February 2012.
Chopin's preference for pianos made by the Pleyel firm in Paris is well known. Willis used a marvelously warm-sounding Pleyel grand, No.15270, for this latest William S. Newman Series concert, which brought back some of the Chopin pieces plus music by Fauré. Wissick played his late 19th century German cello, using gut strings and a short 19th century end pin. The intimate acoustics of Person Hall created the feel of hearing a concert in a nineteenth century Parisian salon.
The first half of the concert sandwiched short solo keyboard pieces by Chopin and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) between larger duo works by the same composers. Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 3, has an interesting musical history. The nineteen-year old Chopin composed the Polonaise in 1829 for a Polish patron, Prince Antonin Radziwill, an amateur cellist of limited technique. Later that year the composer met virtuoso cellist Joseph Merk, who convinced him to compose the Introduction to show off Merk's cantabile playing. Another cellist, August Franchomme, added some of his own touches several years later. Twentieth-century cellist Emmanuel Feuermann made a whole rewrite of the polonaise's cello part, and this edition is the one most often played today. Wissick used the older Viennese print of the Introduction and supplemented some of Franchomme's tweaking and suggested fingerings in the Polonaise.
Willis played Chopin's Ētude in C sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (1835-37). Sometimes called the "Cello Ētude," it is a little tonal drama which John Gillespie, in Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, describes as "a short recitative in the left hand expands into a broad melody [before] another melody enters in the right hand" leading to an unusually beautiful interplay between the two lyric lines. Next, Wissick rejoined Willis for two justly popular pieces, Fauré's "Après un rêve" ("After a Dream"), Op. 7 (1877) and "Sicilienne," Op. 78 (1889) with its beautifully spun-out melody.
Fauré's 13 Nocturnes are among his finest group of keyboard pieces. Willis chose one of the best known, the Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat, Op. 63. This was followed by Chopin's Impromptu in G-flat, Op. 51, which is the most subtle of the composer's four. The first half of the concert ended with the two musicians sensitive playing of Fauré's "Ēlégie," Op. 24 (1880).
In the duo selections, Wissick played with a full, rich tone, excellent intonation, and stylish phrasing. His pp playing was ravishing. There was a fascinating auxiliary feature on Willis' Pleyel piano. Throughout the entire concert, he played with the piano's lid fully raised, but Willis lowered a thin wooden piece shaped like a two thirds version of the lid for works with the cello. Willis said it was inaptly called a "false soundboard" or "dust cover" but theorized it aided in balancing. Unlike a lowered piano lid, this device allowed the full quality of color and tone to sound. Balance between th cello and the piano was excellent. The unique hammers of the Pleyel helped produce a gorgeous, sweet and velvety sound. The clarity and even, pure quality of sound were intoxicating.
Chopin's Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, Op. 65 (1845-46), which ended the concert, was the very last work he composed. Wissick and Willis gave a breathtaking performance of the four-movement work. The first movement was wistful while the Scherzo was lilting and, by turn, playful. The slow Largo was superbly played by both and its "prayerful" quality was well brought out. The low range of Wissick's cello gloried in the full, rich bottom notes while the soaring highs were bright and precise. The hushed ending was magnificent. The finale was sufficiently rousing if less interesting than the first three movements.