The intimacy of the Phillips Collection’s music room was an ideal venue for cellist Carter Brey and his excellent collaborator, pianist Benjamin Pasternack, on Sunday. Brey is a literal musician. He doesn’t milk a long-held note for a bloom where no bloom is called for. When he distorts rhythms with a rubato or an extra push, he does so with the utmost discretion. More may be called for to make a point in a large concert hall, but up close, the sort of restraint that Brey offered spoke volumes. His program, three 20th-century American works flanked by the Schumann Fantasiestücke and the Chopin Cello Sonata, did just fine with the straightforward delivery Brey and Pasternack offered.
The quiet longing of the first movement of the Schumann that, in the ensuing movements, opened into carefree joy and then urgency all happened subtly with shades of color, rhythmic anticipation and a whole catalogue of attacks. Pasternack shared in all this, every bit the partner rather than accompanist. And the concluding Chopin, by turns lyrical and jaunty, showed the two musicians at their partnering best.
In between were examples of three different directions that 20th-century American music took — Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, carefully worked-out, architecturally clear and occasionally playful; Leon Kirchner’s “For Solo Cello,” much more free form and unpredictable; and, for solo piano, Pasternack’s arrangement of Three Dance Episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” full of percussive chord clusters and bluesy harmonies.
Brey, who premiered Kirchner’s piece in 1988, played it with the authority of familiarity, spitting out bursts of energy and tossing off its ripples of ascending arpeggios with knife-edged clarity. Pasternack roared through the Bernstein with an impressive head of steam and, together, the two gave the sort of compelling account of the Carter, once thought of as daunting, that could sell it to the most musically conservative audience.