Andrew Ousley asked for silence between the pieces during his introductory remarks, and the silence only seemed appropriate in a small underground crypt in upper Manhattan. The mastermind behind the Crypt Sessions at the Church of the Intercession, as well the Angel's Share concerts in the catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Ousley has a flair for the dramatic. But for a program of intense cello/piano duos by Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke, the silence would prove most welcome.

Joshua Roman and Conor Hanick © Kevin Condon
Joshua Roman and Conor Hanick
© Kevin Condon

A small crowd of 50 nearly filled the space, and candles along the edge of the floor (with LED wicks but effective nevertheless) reminded the audience where they were, in the unlikely event that anyone might forget on this first autumnal night of the year, if still in the waning days of summer.

The evening, of course, belonged to the performers – pianist Conor Hanick and cellist Joshua Roman. They opened the hour-long program with Pärt's imminently recognizable Fratres, a theme recorded by Keith Jarrett and the Kronos Quartet, among many others, and often heard in movies and television. Scored for indeterminate instrumentation, the 1977 piece almost epitomizes beauty found in simplicity, a set of variations on a six-bar progression, but is deceptively complex in harmonic structure. The introductory crescendo, played by Roman, seemed designed to warm up the walls so that when, less than a minute later, the first piano was struck, it felt as if the room had already been glazed in sound.

The acoustics in the 1915 crypt are not about reverberation – the room is too small and the delay likewise brief – but about natural amplification. Even with just a baby grand (provided by Yamaha, and blessed be those who brought it down the stone stairway), the piano was steadfast and solemn.

It seemed almost as if Pärt's ever popular theme was put at the front to give the ambiance time to activate to the sound, to the lighting, to the slightly stale air, before descending further. They sat in silence longer than might be expected before Roman stretched his wings to their full breadth for the glorious opening of Schnittke's 1978 Sonata for cello and piano, at which point time froze. The Pärt, it seemed, was a tease. Here the depth of music became tactile, topographical. The piano repeatedly demarcated the passing of time, only to have it blurred again by the cello. Hanick played with a mystical suspension not in the timing but in the enunciation, as if moving from cumulus to cumulonimbus clouds, ascending into a storm.

Schnittke followed his countryman Shostakovich in spirit, but the fury of his expression rivaled the centuries-old brooding of Beethoven. It took up the better part of the program, not only as measured by the hands of the clock. It's a marvel of duet scoring in which the presence of just two players was called to question. The music grew massive, symphonic, quite literally extra-ordinary, as if the ghosts of this room – old only by American standards – were circling, singing. It was, in a word, stunning.

Joshua Roman and Conor Hanick © Kevin Condon
Joshua Roman and Conor Hanick
© Kevin Condon

It seemed almost unfair to pit Pärt's prayers against Schnittke's swears, humility versus bravado, but at the same time, once you've climbed the mountain there's nothing to do but go back down. Another length of silence led us to Pärt's lovely and very earthly 1978 Spiegel im Spiegel. It could have been a dream, it could have been a song by the Shirelles, but it couldn't have been more perfect. Hanick and Roman poured into Pärt's simplicity all the technique they had in their four hands, all the emotion they had in their two hearts. It was no mere representation, it was beauty beyond expression. If nothing else, Pärt can speak to the eternal and in that stone room, so out of sync with the environs above (the neighborhood, the nation, the world) it seemed an idealization of hope.

An encore was neither necessary nor uninvited, and Roman took it alone, plucking chords from his cello and singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (as familiar a hymn as the opening Pärt), returning the small audience to the worldly. With a nod, he cued the audience to join him in the final choruses as the crypt returned to the ground.


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