David Hardy and Lambert Orkis at the Kennedy Center
It took three pianos, two cellos, two concerts and three-and-a-quarter hours for David Hardy and Lambert Orkis to explore Beethoven's cello-and-piano music Sunday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. All eight works that Beethoven produced for this instrumental combination received thorough and knowing performances -- but their sonic impact varied tremendously.
For the first of the two Op. 5 Sonatas -- written by Beethoven to curry favor with King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, an amateur cellist -- and a set of variations on a theme by Handel, Orkis played a replica of a 1788 fortepiano and Hardy used a cello made by his father, Raymond Hardy, an exact duplicate of a 1694 Carlo Giuseppe Testore instrument. Even in fortissimo passages, there was a quiet intimacy to this combination. The absence of pedals on the fortepiano helped ease the balance between the instruments and produce performances of delicacy and clarity.
Hardy used the same cello for the Op. 69 Sonata and one of Beethoven's two sets of variations on themes from Mozart's "Magic Flute." But Orkis switched to a replica of a piano from the early 19th century -- a particularly happy choice for the sonata. This pedal-equipped piano produced a richer and fuller sound. The sonata featured beautiful tonal blending and a touch of Sturm und Drang intensity. Hardy and Orkis played with an easy familiarity of the music and each other.
The second concert used a modern Steinway grand, paired with the original Testore cello -- which on this occasion produced a rounder, more even tone than its modern copy. The piano proved a bit overwhelming for the second set of "Magic Flute" variations, but the full piano sound and warm cello made the second Op. 5 Sonata, in G Minor, particularly expressive.
This combination worked best for Beethoven's last two cello-and-piano sonatas. Op. 102, No. 1 is filled with pathos and drama -- a huge stylistic leap over the earlier works. Hardy and Orkis plunged into it with fervor and produced a unified, strongly emotional reading. No. 2 was equally exemplary, especially in the contrast between the slow movement -- which first sounds like bells tolling and then becomes intensely emotional -- and the lopsided dance of the finale.
Together, the concerts were an extraordinary chance to hear how deeply the choice of instruments affects music's impact.
-- Mark J. Estren