When one has the opportunity to hear a musician of the stature of cellist Ronald Leonard, it’s a given that there will be at least a handful of memorable moments.
When such an artist is partnered with an “accompanist” such as Christopher Taylor — a musician whose artistic mind and technical mastery are a virtual match for Leonard’s — then the entire event has the chance to be filed in a special drawer of one’s memory banks.
Such was the result Friday night at a packed Morphy Recital Hall. Leonard, despite having devoted a quarter-century of his life as the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1975-2000), had already been prodigiously active in chamber music and teaching, and added some substantial conducting achievements to his repertoire. The still-growing product is an artist of true depth, a master not simply of technique, but one of broad insight into every style, and who knows the difference between technical dazzle, and the reason why a great composer might employ such a passage in the first place.
I say this because listening to Leonard quickly made me reflect on hearing the youthful Alisa Weilerstein just the previous week with the Madison Symphony. Make no mistake, I stand by my review of her: she excites in the way one acknowledges her dazzling technique and daring and sees ample evidence that she may indeed grow into an artist of towering stature. But she can be impetuous, headstrong, and — for all the fresh moments she brought to the most frequently played of all cello concertos, Dvorak’s — her most arresting qualities were not always placed first at the service of the composer’s work.
Leonard however is, to be brief, the opposite. He does not lack for passion, or pyrotechnics, but only when required. To be fair, Ms. Weilerstein was heard in a single major work, albeit a masterpiece. Leonard’s menu ran the gamut from the late Classicism of Francouer and Schubert to the various degrees of Romanticism in Schumann, Grieg and Reger. There was even a hint of the miraculous about it all, as cellist and pianist had never performed together before, but gave a clinic as they went in wordless communication, and unanimity of interpretive spirit.
The evening opened with the unfamiliar “Prelude” Op. 123 of Emanuel Moor, a brief work that still finds time to move from stately to impassioned. The Sonata in E major of Francouer had its share of stateliness to open its four movements, but the pair of players delved as deeply into the later movements’ playfulness, songful qualities and scampering finale.
Schumann’s three “Fantasy Pieces,” Op. 73 were originally set for clarinet, and speaking as one who has played that original, I could not help but envy Leonard’s phrasing and ability to subtly color the different ranges of the instrument. The last of the three is marked “with fire,” and both players nailed that directive.
The first half closed with the post-Romantic Max Reger’s Suite for Solo Cello, Op. 131c, No. 1. For anyone who regretted not having a Bach suite programmed, here was the next best thing. The central Adagio, with its extensive double stops (playing on two strings at once) became a virtual one-man duet.
The highlight of the second half was the fabulous Sonata in A minor, Op. 36 by Grieg, he of the “Peer Gynt” fame. Earlier in the evening I was disappointed not to see any program notes for the background of the works (a general point; Grieg’s life and work is generally well known), but in listening to this piece unfold it seemed that even the best notes would have seemed superfluous; the players revealed the “real” meaning of the music as it progressed. Taylor, who consistently matched Leonard in every way, seemed to summon even greater depths here. I know I have heard the work more than once on recordings, but as thunderous applause rained down, I asked myself why I had never been swept away by the piece before? The answer of course, lies in the performers.
The formal program ended with Schubert’s “Introduction, Theme and Variations,” Op. 82, No. 2, where the only hint of scrappiness emerged for a moment. It scarcely threw a shadow on the proceedings, and another round of curtain calls elicited a single encore: Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer.”
As I had watched Leonard, I mused that the very act of playing cello is a great metaphor for his career: one must not only hold the instrument close to one’s heart, but wrap your arms around it, and embrace it fully. How fortunate for us last Friday that Taylor could get his arms around this performance, too.