While other museum music halls turned into tombs over the weekend, the weekly Phillips Collection recital was mobbed Sunday. The stately, privately endowed music room suddenly became an oasis from federal budget nightmares.
One felt like applauding husband-and-wife duo Jeanne and Norman Fischer before they even played a note, for programming rarely heard cello music by Chopin and Lizst. It takes nerve and humor to appear in public with Chopin's "Polonaise Brillante," Op. 3 -- dismissed by the composer as "a trifle for the salon ... suitable for ladies."
While spinning out the polonaise's triplet figures and the Grand Duo Concertant's Meyerbeer-inspired hit tunes was not a problem for Norman Fischer, getting to the heart of Chopin's writing was not an easy manner. There are a great many passages in this and the other duets that are based on the cellist's ability to juggle contrasts of harmony and texture. Norman Fischer delivered a uniform kind of smoothness -- when he was not beset by slips in intonation. These were apparent right from Elegy No. 1's first unaccompanied notes.
Indeed, the Fischers -- who both teach at Oberlin College -- have probably seen better days. Norman Fischer knows his way around the cello's stratospheric ranges mapped out in the Chopin polonaise, but the absence of full, confident tones was noticeable here. Certainly, a peculiar flatness better suits the mood of Liszt's "La Lugubre Gondola," but in Norman Fischer's hands it seemed confined to a few notes rather than a dramatic shaping force.
In score form, Chopin's and Liszt's duets seem to be unequal partnerships; in Sunday's performance, Jeanne Fischer proved an able pianist who carried most of the weight, save for some percussive harshness during the Grand Duo.