Chamber music power duos - alliances between musicians you'd normally hear as concerto soloists with the Philadelphia Orchestra - typically converge amid their busy careers, almost like airplanes refueling in mid-flight, to refresh and redefine the most substantial masterpieces of the repertoire.
That's why the concert by violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Paul Lewis on Wednesday night at the Kimmel Center, a presentation of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, seemed odd.
In choosing less notable works by Schubert and Telemann, they almost certainly held some secret to the music that has eluded others. But as wonderful as the performances were by these two distinctive, cultivated artists, the pieces stubbornly refused to allow higher revelations. Such choices were particularly curious since this was Batiashvili's official U.S. recital debut. Then again, this was the same program the pair has been playing in Europe, and power duos don't always have time for any great tinkering with original plans.
The program began with Schubert's Violin Sonata in A Major ("Grand Duo") and Rondeau Brillant in B minor - light, fun, with no steep technical demands by today's standards. In two solo turns, Lewis played the Bach/Busoni Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which was wonderful but felt like a musical cul de sac alongside Batiashvili playing Telemann's Fantasie No. 4 for solo violin. Though the music is roughly from the same era, the beefed-up-by Busoni quality in Lewis' Bach transcription assured the two pieces had little kinship.
Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 10 Op. 96, the most introspective of the composer's works in this medium, made everything well worth it. Few pianists can scale back their sound like Lewis. His playing actually gained personality and coloristic range in softer moments. The performance was a conversation with a seldom-heard degree of specificity. Batiashvili harnessed her characteristic inner fire, and delivered more sumptuous tone than she typically allows herself in her zeal to deliver unadulterated musical messages.
Every phrase was thoughtfully proportioned, with peaks and valleys charted with utmost care. This was no superstars-on-the-run performance.
The encore choice, though, reprised the recital's incongruity: the fluffy Fritz Kreisler Liebesleid. Oh, well.