Cellist Karen Freer. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Review: Cello and piano recital proves both substantive and appealing

Mark Gresham | 4 MAR 2020

On Sunday afternoon, cellist Karen Freer and pianist Tim Whitehead performed a recital of music by Beethoven, Cassadó and Chopin at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on the Emory University campus.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102, no. 1. Along with the Piano Sonata, No. 28, Op. 101, the two cello sonatas of Op. 102 mark the beginning of Beethoven’s “late period,” with the piano sonata written in 1816 and the cello sonatas completed the year before. Only about 15 minutes in duration, No. 4 us the shortest of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, but its concentrated, innovative shows how Beethoven was challenging the status quo of “classical” sonata structures.

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It was a good choice. Less frequently performed than the earlier cellos sonatas, in particular No. 3, it needs to be heard more, and this was a great opportunity to do so. The excellent performance by Freer and Whitehead which attended to the intellectual and emotional challenges posed by the work’s organic development, occasional enigmatic moments, and counterpoint that comes to to the fore in the finale.

The Suite for unaccompanied cello by early 20th-century Spanish cellist and composer Gaspar Cassadó is a piece that was championed and popularized by the renowned cellist János Starker, one of Freer’s principal teachers when she was earning her master’s degree at at Eastman School of Music. Its three movements are based on Spanish dances: “Preludio-Fantasia” is a Zarabanda (Sarabande), the middle movement is a Sardana; and the “Intermezzo e Danza Finale” is a Jota. Cassadó quotes works by two other composers in the first movement: the remarkable Sonata for Solo Cello by Zoltán Kodály and the famous flute solo from Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé.

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Freer, playing alone, took full advantage of the sonorous qualities that this challenging piece affords the cello, and the elements of style that spring from Cassado’s Spanish cultural heritage.

Pianist Tim Whitehead. (source: timwhiteheadpiano.com/)

Pianist Tim Whitehead. (source: timwhiteheadpiano.com/)

After an intermission, the program concluded with the Sonata in G Minor for cello and piano, Op. 65, by Frédéric Chopin, one of only nine works of his, published during his lifetime, that involves instruments other than piano. It was also the last of them. Like Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4, Chopin’s half-hour-long Sonata is a rather concentrated piece. Its four-movement layout is more reminiscent of a middle-period Beethoven symphony (Allegro, Scherzo, Largo, Allegro, in this case) than Beethoven’s more formally exploratory Sonata, but is stamped with Chopin’s own distinctive style to make for an impressive, engaging work.

With Chopin almost exclusively piano-oriented in his compositional output (all of his works have a piano part) it would be remiss to not mention Whitehead’s smooth collaborative work at the keyboard, nicely balance with Freer’s cello both here and in the Beethoven. Good partnerships bring out the best in both performers, which was certainly true in this appealing performance of substantive repertoire. ■