Tannery Pond Concerts Season Opening: Carter Brey cello and Christopher O’Riley piano

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Christopher O'Riley, pianist, and cellist Carter Brey cello
Christopher O'Riley, pianist, and cellist Carter Brey cello

Tannery Pond Concerts, May 24, 3 pm

Carter Brey cello and Christopher O’Riley piano

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Sonata in F major, Opus 6, for cello and piano
Allegro con brio
Andante ma non troppo
Finale: Allegro vivo

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Sonata, for cello and piano
Allegro—Tempo di Marcia

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Sonata in G minor, Opus 65, for cello and piano
Allegro molto
Scherzo: Allegro con brio
Finale: Allegro

The Tannery Pond Concerts always start early, and, as I walk across the Darrow School lawns on a Sunday afternoon, encounter friends I haven’t seen for months and greet others I see all the time, I feel that the summer season has really begun. Even Nikolai the Sealyham Terrier was scurrying about the entrance to the old Shaker Tannery, checking out the concert-goers. He knows most of them—both by sight and by smell. I could imagine myself in a scene from Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu. With this particular concert, the season began in earnest, with a brilliantly assembled program and playing of the highest order, but I don’t mean “earnest” in the sense of “heavy,” or even “important.” Messrs. Brey and O’Riley played extroverted early Strauss, a superb Poulenc sonata, in which the composer oscillated between his more ingratiating and gravely cerebral modes, and Chopin at his greatest and most universally embracing. In juxtaposing these works they were not so much interested in mere variety or in placing classical staples alongside the less familiar, as in compositional and emotional parallels among them. I’ll leave the stunning encore for last, where it belongs.

Carter Brey and Christopher O’Riley are friends, and they have played together for years. Mr. Brey has been principle cello of the New York Philharmonic since 1996. He also recently joined the faculty of the Curtis School of Music, where he recently played Prokofiev’s fascinating and fiendishly virtuosic Sinfonia Concertante for Cello. He has recorded Chopin’s complete works of cello and piano with Garrick Ohlsson. Christopher O’Riley is a brilliant and extraordinarily versatile pianist, who is also known as the host of “From the Top,” a public broadcasting show featuring young musicians. It appears both on radio and on television. He has made numerous recordings,including his own transcriptions of Radiohead, and, according to Christian Steiner, is an avid collector of pianos. In all of works on the program, except the encore, the cello is generally front and center—a situation Mr. O’Riley graciously accepted without compromising one bit of his probing curiosity or his natural flair. The musicians were entirely at ease with one another, allowing both the freedom to follow their own direction, while never failing in their mutual support. Carter Brey could not be more focused or disciplined in his playing or in his approach to the scores. There was not one trace of self-indulgence, no expression that had not meaning outside its context in the composition, and every note in every bar was perfectly executed, or so close to it that only the musicians themselves would notice. Brey’s technique is nothing short of amazing. And, when you hear him play, you immediately understand why that is so important in this music-making. It really makes a difference to hear Strauss’ and Chopin’s yearning arpeggios played perfectly in tune, and I believe this may have been the first time I have actually heard either piece played to that technical standard.

Richard Strauss was all of nineteen when he wrote his Cello Sonata in F major. There is perhaps a tendency for audiences to regard his early works with condescension, but there was little chance for that at this concert. For one thing the Tannery Pond audiences are about the most sophisticated you will find anywhere and they know better, and for the other, Brey and O’Riley approached it with respect and the keenest perception into the variety of feeling and imagination that lurk under the manic exterior of the music, and they made it impossible not to take it seriously. The sonata is impressively put together for such an early work, its thematic material is appealing, and Strauss develops it skillfully. Finished in 1883, the year of Wagner’s death, the work shows no influence of the composer who was to revolutionize Strauss’ mature work—all because of paternal interdict, it seems. However there is plenty of Schumann in the first movement and a big dose of Mendelssohn in the final movement. I was once astonished to hear Joachim Raff’s Sextet in G minor, which was written in a Mendelssohnian style in 1872, twenty-five years after Mendelssohn’s death. Here we are in 1883, and his ghost still walks. After all, there was a joke current at the end of the century about the windowless, notoriously stuffy Gewandhaus in Leipzig: it was still possible to breathe the same air that Mendelssohn breathed. Brey’s restraint and focus is just what the piece needs, while O’Riley provided nuanced and colorful support.

Poulenc’s cello sonata, on the other hand, is a mature work, which he wrote over quite a long period of time, writing some initial sketches in 1940 and not finishing the work until 1948. He wrote it for his close friend, the great cellist Pierre Fournier, who participated in the composition. Although the heady days of Paris in the 1920’s were long gone, there is still an element of the salon in the sonata, but there are sober elements in it as well, not to mention a good deal of wit and intellectual rigor. Brey and O’Riley juggled all these elements with consummate assurance and projected the robust inner core of the work as well as its surface charm. There were subtle parallels as well between this work and the Strauss sonata, serendipitous resemblances, which doubtless inspired the the musicians to juxtapose them on the same program.

Chopin’s G minor Sonata was one of his very last works. It was premiered at his final public concert. Like Poulenc’s sonata, it was composed for and with the aid of a particular cellist, a close friend, Auguste Franchomme. Its first movement has always struck me as Chopin’s most successful effort at sonata form, as if he finally cracked it just before he died. Again, Carter Brey’s discipline and perfect intonation were just what Chopin’s intensely emotive music has been waiting for. We could appreciate not only the beauty of Chopin’s melodies and his daring harmonies, which now, finally, were made to function fully within the scheme of a more complex musical structure, but his developing command of form as well. Christopher O’Riley’s evident affinity for Chopin’s piano music was another wondrous quality of this gripping performance, which did justice to the work’s multiple layers as no other I’ve heard. While I’ve been stressing other aspects of the performance, passion and feeling were never lacking.

The musicians were right on the mark for all the works in the program, and the Chopin was something of a revelation. A more dramatic revelation, for this listener at any rate, lay in the encore, an elaborate tango by Astor Piazzolla, aptly named the Grand Tango. Piazzolla has been fashionable with chamber musicians for some time. His music is one way for them to venture into popular forms without playing arrant trash, but, on previous experience, his music has struck me as being all about style, with whatever apparent substance falling more in the realm of pretension. The  Grand Tango has escaped me for some reason until now. It is a truly magnificent work, seething with dark moods which the composer has expressed on an almost monumental level. Brey and O’Riley, letting go a bit after the formal program. played with an overt passion which seemed to unlock Joycean secrets from the subconscious. O’Riley even added a couple of loud bangs on the piano case to imitate the clacking of heels on the dance floor. This really was a revelation. Piazzolla, revelation or no revelation, is no greater a composer than Chopin, but the audience responded with a wild enthusiasm unleashed by his deeply twentieth-century mythic qualities. The brothel dance in the end projected all its power as a rite of passage even at this polite, but by no means prudish gathering. If the Shakers had only heard it, they wouldn’t be extinct today. If their ghosts can hear it, they will weep.

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