Cellist Janos Starker and pianist Menachem Pressler -- without question, two giants of the subtle art of chamber music performance -- opened the 25th season of Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall Music Series Saturday.
Their program offered three of the cello and piano literature's most rewarding masterpieces: the Brahms Sonata in E minor, Opus 38, Beethoven's A major sonata, Opus 69, and a sonata composed for Mr. Starker in 1958 by the American Bernhard Heiden.
Nevertheless, this sure artistic investment did not repay the expected handsome dividends. Mr. Pressler, whose usually flawless technical security is well known, had a surprising number of finger slips and some uneven scale playing. And while Mr. Starker's considerable technical skills were very much in fine form, his interpretations often lacked an appropriate sense of breadth.
Perhaps the least rewarding playing of the evening occurred in the opening movement of the Brahms. With its extended passages in the lowest register of the cello range, this movement is one of Brahms' most somber and problematic, requiring a plasticity of tempo suitable to its grandeur.
Mr. Starker and Mr. Pressler, however, adopted a fairly brisk tempo, driving the music relentlessly and making impossible the carefully considered shaping of melodic phrases which the work demands.
The two master-artists hit their stride in the sonata's middle movement -- an elegant interlude with dance rhythms -- which they performed with wonderfully elastic rhythmic nuance. But once again, their reading of the finale, a robust Allegro frequently recalling the fugal textures of baroque music, was too frenetic to successfully elucidate the movement's vigor and power.
Similar problems plagued the first movement of the Beethoven, a particularly autumnal work from Beethoven's "middle" period of activity.
However, the two performers brilliantly captured the darkly mischievous character of the central scherzo movement with its dance-inflected rhythms, and were dazzling in the finale -- a breathtaking Allegro vivace -- which they delivered with all due gusto.
Like the music of his teacher, Paul Hindemith, Mr. Heiden's sonata paradoxically combines austere neoclassical melodies and rhythms with intense, luminous harmonies. This alchemy produces an absolutely vibrant result, more successful, in the main, than that found in Hindemith's chamber music output. Mr. Starker and Mr. Pressler's performance was appropriately ecstatic.