As a rule I do not follow closely the events in the Chancellor’s Concert Series offered at the different campuses of the University of California, San Francisco; but I did not want to pass up an opportunity to hear a recital by Peter Wyrick, Associate Principal Cellist of the San Francisco Symphony, even if that recital was only half an hour long. Wyrick was accompanied by pianist June Choi Oh; and the two of them constitute two-thirds of the Tilden Trio, which I covered last December. On that occasion the repertoire was German, but for this afternoon’s recital it was all French. The primary offering was Francis Poulenc’s Opus 143 cello sonata, completed in 1948 and dedicated to Pierre Fournier; and this was followed by Gabriel Fauré’s A major romance, Opus 69.
Poulenc was a prolific composer whose music covered a broad variety of genres, but I always find myself most interested in his chamber music (in which category I would include his art songs for voice and piano). He brings a consistently light touch to this music with sonorities more transparent than are encountered in his large-scale works; and one can more readily appreciate how he applies those sonorities to a broad spectrum of expression, even within a single sonata movement. Also, since Poulenc himself was a pianist, the piano parts for his duo sonatas tend to “converse” with the other instrument, rather than merely accompany it. From this point of view, Wyrick and Oh clearly caught this spirit of conversation, bringing excellent clarity to the give-and-take exchanges of their respective parts.
The Fauré romance was much shorter but may have been the product of an interesting historical twist. Every now and then I discover that, when one composer has reached the Opus Number of a predecessor, the later work sometimes acknowledges the “past legacy” of the number itself. I was first aware of this particular retrospective influence when I was studying Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 131, his seventh symphony, which was not only his final symphony but also one of his last compositions. Prokofiev chose the key of C-sharp minor for this symphony; and I realized that this was the key of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 string quartet, which was one of the major works at the end of his life. This led me to hypothesize that Prokofiev heard a “valedictory” tone in Beethoven’s quartet that inspired a similarly valedictory nature in his symphony.
Just about any cellist recognizes 69 as an important Opus Number, and again this is a product of Beethoven’s legacy. It is the number of his third cello sonata in A major, a composition that probably receives as much attention from students of composition and analysis as from cello performers. It is hard to imagine that Fauré was trying to compete with Beethoven’s influence in this romance, but he may well have chosen the key of A major to render an encrypted honor to his illustrious predecessor.
This afternoon’s performance, however, was not about breaking any codes. It was a straightforward reading of a composition which, while originally scored for cello and organ, would have fit into any salon setting from Fauré’s own time. Indeed, it might best be taken as “Vinteuil music,” named after the fictional composer whose music (particularly a violin sonata) figures so significantly in the Remembrance of Things Past novels of Marcel Proust; but it is also a small gem that presents Fauré at his most expressive.