Cellist Roy Harrán and pianist Julie Coucheron performed a recital of music by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Piazzolla to a packed crowd Sunday afternoon at Emerson Concert Hall in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The program featured well-acknowledged bastions of classical cello repertoire, rounded out with a pair of popular top tunes by the late Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. The first half was the more conservative, the latter the more adventurous, though both sets were engagingly played by the performers.
The Israeli-born Harrán, who teaches at Emory University and frequently plays with the Atlanta Opera and Atlanta Ballet orchestras, took the stage alone to open with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C major for solo cello. Coucheron then joined Harrán for another significant “number three,” the Sonata No. 3 for cello and piano in A major, Op. 69, by Ludwig van Beethoven.
In both, Harrán played with an energized, bright “cantorial” sound in the cello’s upper register, with sufficient projected warmth in the middle and lower registers, moderated by the size and acoustics of Emerson Hall, at least for those of us seated farther back. That distance likewise offered a softened, less percussive sound to Coucheron’s piano, and the two instruments balanced and blended well, if less immediate in feeling of presence.
After intermission came “Tanti anni prima,” one of two hauntingly beautiful tunes drawn from Ástor Piazzola’s score for the 1984 Marco Bellocchio film Enrico IV (Henry IV), which is based on the eponymous play by Luigi Pirandello. Of them, “Oblivion,” which is heard at the close of the movie, is one of Piazzolla’s best known songs and more frequently performed, but “Tanti anni prima” is no less beautiful. It is the theme associated with the character Matilda, portrayed by Claudia Cardinale in the movie. The song is also known as “Ave Maria,” a later name most likely given it by Piazzolla’s Italian agent, Aldo Pagani. The piece is known about equally by each, so recordings can be found under each, or with both. Although originally for oboe and piano, there are many transcriptions. The one for cello and piano is among the more frequently performed and is a great example of the tango master’s more straightforward, lyrically sentimental side.
That was followed by a staple of early-20th-century cello repertoire, Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor. Written in 1915, it is notorious for its relative brevity while at the same time is considered one of the genuine masterworks for cello. Debussy chose to avoid the classical-romantic structure for a sonata, instead modeling its three movements on early-18th-century forms, particularly the music of François Couperin. The music is nonetheless modern in its outlook, making use of Debussy’s penchant for more modal harmonic languages, plus a raft of extended techniques such as spiccato and flautando bowing, left-hand pizzicato, portamenti and artificial harmonics. A resolute “Prologue” was followed by a more animated and technically adventurous “Sérénade,” which launched without pause into the sonata’s more agitated “Finale.”
Although not in the printed program, Harrán and Coucheron closed the formal part of the concert with a highly popular work by Astor Piazzolla, “Libertango” (1974), arranged for cello and piano by Steve Sherrill, a retired Atlanta Symphony Orchestra librarian and composer who now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They subsequently returned to the stage to play an encore: the “Largo” movement from Frédéric Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65.