The old adage says that those who can't do teach, but John Ruggero is among those exceptions that prove the rule. In a decision to all but abandon his concert career to devote his time to the Triangle's most promising piano students, Ruggero has left a significant gap in the local roster of chamber musicians. Fortunately, he broke his "vow of silence" to return to the stage with long-time partner, cellist Jonathan Kramer, and violinist Yang Xi. If Ruggero is now seldom heard, so too are the Sonata, Opus 6 for Cello and Piano by Samuel Barber and Edvard Grieg's Sonata, Opus 36 for the same forces. Yang Xi joined Ruggero and Kramer to round out the program with the warhorse of the afternoon, Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio.
In this Bösendorfer Hall concert, the best came first. Unashamedly romantic, Samuel Barber sailed through the twentieth century pretty much ignoring and evading the slings and arrows of outraged academic serialists. And who better to perform the work than the unashamedly romantic Kramer! Composed in 1932, the Cello Sonata was written while Barber was still acquiring his composer's toolkit. He composed the work for cellist Orlando Cole, whom he consulted throughout the work's gestation in order to adapt it to the particular musical idiom of the featured instrument. But even then, knowledgeable listeners regarded the work as passé. No matter! Both Ruggero and Kramer clearly love the piece, which can - now that serialism has lost its death-grip - take its place in the cello repertory without apology to fashion, however erudite at the time.
The Grieg Sonata is a less successful work, primarily because the composer fell into the trap of over-writing. While this should be seen as the "composer's problem," it becomes the performers' problem, especially in the overlong final movement, when they run out of interpretive space for yet another repetition of the rondo theme and another musical climax. Kramer introduced the piece by admitting a nostalgic attachment to it because he and his brother used to play it as kids. It ain't easy, and we're sure the more mature Kramer and Ruggero did considerably more justice to it. A minor flaw in the performance, particularly in the last movement, came about because Ruggero didn't have a page turner and had to make some inelegant pauses while he flipped back to repeats.
As an encore to the first half of the program, Kramer and Ruggero threw another sop to nostalgia with an 1890s arrangement of Grieg's "The Last Spring." (Readers of a certain age will recall it as the theme music to the 50s TV show I Remember Mama , based on the Kathryn Forbe's novel Mama's Bank Account.)
Less well known to Triangle Audiences as a soloist is violinist Yang Xi, Currently assistant concertmaster of the Raleigh Symphony. He started the second half of the program with an unscheduled performance of a work of violin gymnastics, a polonaise by Henryk Wieniawski. But like any form of gymnastics, you've got to do at it every day to land a perfect 10 from the acrobatic leaps. He acquitted himself very well in the Beethoven, paying special attention to maintain strict balance with the cello and piano, although with a little more vibrato than we prefer. Also a little wobbly in the second half were Ruggero's rapid accompaniment figures in the "Archduke." We suspect he gave more practice time to the Barber and the Grieg, perhaps giving short shrift to a work he has performed so often in the past. Kramer's warm, sensuous tone carried the day.