The peak of Sunday's beautifully played recital by Lynn Harrell and Victor Asuncion -- the initial concert in this season's Shriver Hall Concert Series -- was a performance of the last of Beethoven's sonatas for cello and piano -- No. 5 in D Major (Opus 102, No. 2).
Harrell has been one of the world's leading cellists for almost 30 years, and he has presumably been playing the sonatas for even longer. He made a fine recording of them about 10 years ago with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, but he clearly has new things to say. Harrell has always liked to work with pianists who can challenge him. And in his young Filipino-born collaborator, Asuncion, he has found a partner who stretches as well as supports him.
Opus 102, No. 2 is a hard piece to bring off. It's the only one of the five sonatas for this combination of instruments with a conventional, extended slow movement. But that movement is among the least conventional things Beethoven had written up to that time. Harrell and Asuncion played it at what can only be described as a heroically slow tempo, transforming it essentially into a funeral march.
This conception was as successful as it was intriguing. It made the impassioned eruptions of the first movement seem even more meaningful, and it illuminated the final movement, one of Beethoven's crazily fugal finales in his last period, as an expression of joy and thanksgiving rather than just an experiment in counterpoint.
Harrell and Asuncion were equally successful in Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke (Opus 73). Harrell played these three pieces with a good deal of rubato, plenty of leeway in tempo, a stylish sense of phrase. There was none of the eternal concentration on tonal beauty, smooth phrasing and oily legato that too often characterizes the way American cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays these pieces. Harrell certainly knows how to play beautifully -- but not at the expense of passion and inner life.
Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello, which opened the program's second half, was played in what some might consider an excessively romantic style. What I heard in Harrell's freely expressive performance, in which the size and mellowness of his tone could have been matched by only a handful of living cellists, was undeniable authority.
Five of Harrell's own transcriptions from operas by Verdi and Mozart were played with as much expressiveness as wit. The single encore -- Chopin's E-flat Nocturne (Opus 9, No. 2) in a souped-up version of the familiar Casals transcription -- was the dessert that brought a wonderful and varied meal to a memorable close.