Pieter Wispelwey’s visits to the Washington area are always worth hearing, and his recital Wednesday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center was no exception. The Dutch cellist, who switches easily between historically informed performance practice and the modern instrument, offered one of his gold-standard programs, this time focused on four major works from the years of the two world wars.
There was none of the barbed, bellicose pummeling you might expect from that era, though, as Wispelwey brought together serene and light-filled works that belied the time of their creation. Prokofiev’s late Cello Sonata in C, Op. 119, is an unexpectedly sweet work; the reverie-laden recitative sections of the first movement were given poignant vocal qualities by Wispelwey and followed by a comic serenade and a playful finale. The other Russian work, Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” an arrangement of music from his ballet “Pulcinella,” benefited from Wispelwey’s expertise in baroque music. He infused it with a sense of dance.
Francis Poulenc’s Cello Sonata might not be a great work, but Wispelwey brought his exquisite singing tone to its many luscious melodies, reminiscent of French popular chansons. The chirpy fast passages, especially the delightfully light second movement, are like the soundtrack of a happy French couple tootling around in their Peugeot.
Pianist Pei-Shan Lee was a consummate accompanist, especially in a mercurial performance of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, keeping pace with Wispelwey and never overpowering him or leaving him unsupported. An arrangement of Fauré’s melancholy song “Après un rêve,” with more of Wispelwey’s silky legato playing, was the perfect dessert.
Downey is a freelance writer.