Clemens Hagen may be the spokesman for our age of perfection. If his instrument, the cello, had ever given any player trouble at any point in history, there was no trace of it Wednesday night at his all-Beethoven recital with pianist Kirill Gerstein.
The pair has had ample practice. After playing all five Beethoven cello-piano sonatas Tuesday night in Montreal, and with flights to Philadelphia the next morning canceled, the pair drove through the night to make their Philadelphia Chamber Music Society gig. A few inches of snow kept all but a small audience (about 235 listeners) from the Perelman Theater, and the concert was on.
Cello is as strong a personality as the human voice, and tastes might be somewhat generational. Yo-Yo Ma has a dash of heroism in his sound and is a phenomenon for a visual age. In the '80s, Mischa Maisky hit as an individualist. The touchstone from an era or two earlier was Jacqueline du Pré, whose high-impact emotionalism affixed a certain kind of singing sound in the ear of many a listener.
Wednesday night, a glossy high finish emerged as the Hagen-Gerstein ideal. The cellist — at other times occupied as one-fourth of the Salzburg-based Hagen Quartet — had such an exact level of control it was sometimes a little astonishing to behold. And, at times, a little boring? It's all very personal, of course. But in three Beethoven sonatas, plus the composer's variations on a theme from Mozart's The Magic Flute and a Brahms encore, there might not have been a drop of questioning or struggle.
The 7 Variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" from The Magic Flute certainly provided a range of expressive opportunity. The sixth variation, a luxuriously ornamented "adagio," was sweet indeed, with Gerstein taking love and elegance to his part.
Hagen has absorbed a certain amount of the vibratoless school of thought into his playing, and sometimes the contrast between vibrato and senza vibrato drew attention to itself. Why no vibrato then? Why there? His toggle between the two sounds was distracting in the opening to the Sonata in A Major, Op. 69. But what lovely gifts came elsewhere.
Gerstein's descending figures might have managed the smoothest legato in the business, and Hagen faced the great stretch of tumult in the first movement with absolute clarity and composure. It was no fuss. The last movement was an adrenaline rush.
The two other Beethoven sonatas — Opus 102, Nos. 1 and 2 — followed many of the same contours, logical and highly expert. The ear craved some contrast, and the players obliged. Moving forward one musical era into Brahms, their encore was the second movement of Brahms' Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2. Hagen's playing was beautiful enough, with a gorgeous low register and refined pizzicato, to raise the question of who he might be in other repertoire.