Sometimes in a concert the programmed works are so magnificently performed, with such authority, charm and inevitability that we are taken on a very special and magical journey. It was just such a concert that we enjoyed yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center as the Carmel Music Society presented in recital two great musicians — cellist Lynn Harrell and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. So completely at the top of their form, so relaxed in their onstage presentation , so attentive to demands of the music, their playing seemed as natural as breathing. Unlike political elections, we don’t have exit polls at concerts, but if we had, the results on this occasion would have revealed how much the members of the audience had responded to the emotional stimulation and spiritual uplift of the music. There was an exciting buzz in the air during the intermission and in the lobby at the end of the concert. This was a concert to remember and treasure for years to come.
The two most substantial works on the program were the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in F Major for Cello & Piano and a solo performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57, and they were glorious! The Brahms Cello and Piano Sonata in F is unusual for having been composed in four-movements, a format more commonly found in string quartets and symphonies. Moreover, the scope, breadth and intensity of this great work gave us the impression we were listening to a grand symphony played by two musicians. Not only was this performance rendered in the grand manner, it was also an example of ensemble playing of the highest order. Great chamber music playing is essentially an example of the high art of listening, with Harrell and Parker demonstrating throughout how acutely each musician listened to the other. And they made it all look easy and natural.
The other great work on the program, Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata was, we can assume, familiar to virtually everyone in the audience. Was there a sense of déja vue? No, there was not, for Parker’s performance was so big, bold and totally convincing, we enjoyed it as though we were hearing it for the first time. The most amazing part of this performance was the difficult final movement. It was technically secure, as you rarely hear it, and the virtuosity, of which there was ample evidence, was strictly organic to the music and never drew attention to itself. The way Parker wound up the coda in the final two pages whipped up the audience to frenzy of applause and a standing ovation.
But, there was more to the program. The opening work, Chopin’s “Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante” Op. 3, is a relatively minor work written before Chopin reached the age of 20. Thanks to the excellent program notes by Scott MacClelland, we learned that the version we heard in this concert included an expanded and revised cello part, courtesy of the great cellist Emanuel Feurermann. It was a charming performance full of delicious piano filigree and elegant cello playing.
Harrell performed one unaccompanied solo, the Suite in D Minor, BWV 1008, by Johann Sebastian Bach. The ultra-pianissimo beginning in the opening moment of this Suite was startling in its simplicity and purity. However, it turned out merely to be a foreshadowing of the extraordinary shaping of phrases and manipulating the textures he achieved throughout. This was some of the most elegant and super musical Bach playing we had ever heard.
Another gem on the program was the Seven Variations in E-flat Major on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s” The Magic Flute.” When this piece begins, you have the feeling it is very conventional and a bit of a pot boiler, however, as it moves from variation to variation, the sly humor kicks in and surprises. This was a delightful performance.
The audience response at the end of the program consisted of thundering applause and a standing ovation. Speaking to the audience, Harrell announced one encore. He said there were two great composers in the nineteenth century who almost exclusively wrote piano music, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and both composed substantial works for cello, but not violin, he added. To honor Rachmaninoff Harrell & Parker played the one magnificent encore, the slow movement in e-flat minor from his cello sonata. More than one member of the audience reported tears in their eyes and a lump in their throat, so sublime and moving was this performance.
Incidentally, there was an unfamiliar page turner during this performance. Parker introduced him as Peter Tuff, the newly-hired Executive Director of the Carmel Music Society. Wow! Now that’s a distinguished page turner, and he is also a fine singer in his own right.