I greatly anticipated the New York debut concert of two new European stars, cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Gabriela Montero. Both are artists of great passion and intensity, and they chose a program of works that reflected their myriad gifts – one mid-20th century, one early Romantic, and the last, late Romantic in style.

Virgin Classics
Virgin Classics

The program opened with Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, a work full of diversity of techniques, sounds, and moods. The work was composed in 1949, during a difficult period of the composer’s life, when Stalin had declared that “all Soviet art must be uplifting.” Prokofiev and his musical colleagues had been denounced as “too cosmopolitan and formal.” Due to the grueling process of approval for new compositions, the work was not premiered until 1950, by Mistislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter. The premiere performance was a resounding success, and was declared not to be “hostile to the spirit of the people” (one must wonder exactly how the Politburo determined what was hostile to the people). Despite the obstacles, Prokofiev produced an important work for the cello that ranges from deep introspection to unbridled optimism. It seemed an odd opener to this program though, as even in the 21st century, Prokofiev is still not always totally comfortable in the public’s ear.

On that note, Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, with its fluid writing, might have been a better choice to begin the program. It is a work of delightfully abundant energy and lyricism, one that gave the musicians ample opportunity to enjoy themselves. It was written in 1843, during Mendelssohn’s transition from heading music reform and producing compositions for the King of Prussia in Berlin to assuming his position at the new Leipzig Conservatory. The attendant stress of this period is nowhere evident in this sonata.

The Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor of 1901, his only work for cello, was awash in color, though I must say that I agree with the late Nadia Boulanger, the legendary pedagogue, who made it clear to her students that, if they played Rachmaninoff for her once, they would never dare play it for her again, or risk her disapproval. “No form!” she is rumored to have proclaimed (in truth, there were far more personal reasons for her strong dislike of Rachmaninoff, which were rooted in unpleasant incidents early in her career). I confess that I found nothing particularly memorable about the work.

As an encore, Mr. Capuçon and Ms. Montero played a sensitive and lovely transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” but did not announce to their audience what they were playing. Though it is a familiar work, I am sure there were people who did not know it and who would have appreciated a few comments from the performers; the hall is small enough for the spoken word to be heard. I welcomed the simplicity of quiet introspection after such an ambitious and often bombastic program.

Mr. Capuçon is a musician capable of exploring the entire range of the cello with great sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and passionate engagement. Ms. Montero is possessed of a huge pianistic sound that rivals her mentor’s, Marta Argerich. Though she kept it appropriately in check in quieter passages, in louder passages, she often totally obliterated Mr. Capuçon. The sheer volume of the piano in the Rachmaninoff Sonata was at times unbearable to my ears.

All in all, these are two very gifted artists. However, much has been made of the perfection of their musical fit, often spoken of by the artists themselves, though to my ears, they were not well matched.