Cellist Joseph Johnson, pianist Victor Asuncion a perfect match
Cellist Joseph Johnson and pianist Victor Asuncion made music sound like passionate, persuasive conversation at their recital Tuesday (Oct. 4), at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
The small, enthusiastic, elite audience comprised mostly local luminaries of and hammered strings. Johnson, former principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and current principal of the Toronto Symphony, and Memphis-based Asuncion are amid a six-city tour. The tour was supposed to promote their new CD. As it turns out, the disc isn’t ready, but these musicians are more than ready. Tuesday night, both partners listened intently. They maintained perfect ensemble in shared passages, brought imagination and nuance to the recurring themes and displayed a breadth of color and expression.
They opened with Beethoven’s Variations for Cello and Piano on Bei Mannern weiche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s Magic Flute. They traded passages ranging from sparkling, effortless cascades of notes to plaintive melodies. They made exquisite transitions between light and shadow. They playfully navigated each changing mood and shaded those moods with subtle gradations of legato and staccato. They revealed the laughter and the lament in the music, and let lingering traces of one emotion color the other.
Their connection and communication was taut as a piano string in Dialogo, the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s seldom-played Sonata in C, Opus 65, written in 1961 for Mstislav Rostropovich. The conversation began with three up-bows, erupted into a tumbling, roiling flood of passionate attacks and contrasting textures and tones, and finally subsided into a whisper of delicate piano scales and cello harmonics. The sonata progressed through a playful Scherzo Pizzicato, a darkly ponderous Elegia, a carnivalesque Marcia ending in ellipsis and, finally, a roller-coaster Moto Perpetuo. The finale begins with churning notes in the cello, progresses through a chromatic wilderness of piano chords and a rising crescendo of percussive pizzicato and saltando (bouncing bow). It arrives safely in the key of C at the end.