Bringing off a whole afternoon of romantic-era music isn’t easy; all that sighing and swooning and hot-blooded emoting can get a little ripe in modern ears after a while. But in a program of Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, the extroverted cellist Sophie Shao — accompanied by the wondrous Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute — found an eloquent balance between rapture and cool restraint, and turned in a deeply satisfying performance.
Despite (or maybe because of) their distinct personalities, Shao and Jokubaviciute seemed ideally paired with each other. Opening with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat, Op. 70, Shao threw her head back and leapt in — hair flying and nostrils flaring in fine romantic abandon — as Jokubaviciute accompanied with quiet precision and delicacy, supporting Shao’s sweeping interpretation but bringing a compelling edge and nuance of her own. It made for romanticism at its best: impassioned, even transporting, but with a clear-eyed intelligence that kept it from overheating into mush.
That finely calibrated interplay marked the entire afternoon. Brahms’s spirited Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38, with its restless and sometimes combative back-and-forth between the two players, was a case study in the art of the duet, and Shao held little back in a warm, glowing reading. Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, was equally satisfying — the playing just got better as the afternoon progressed — with an almost palpable connection between the players.
But it may have been Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 69, No. 3, that revealed the two at their best. It’s a subtle work with a kind of quiet nobility to it, and Shao brought both power and insight to her playing. But the piece is as much for piano as it is for cello, and Jokubaviciute may have stolen the show a bit in an absolutely jaw-dropping performance — subtle, complex, almost impossibly detailed and riveting in every way. Jokubaviciute is fast emerging as one of the most gifted young pianists on the scene; kudos to the Phillips (and its adventurous music director, Caroline Mousset) for finding and showcasing talent as remarkable as this.
Brookes is a freelance writer.