By Lawrence Budmen 

The vibrations of cello and guitar strings filled the air at UM Gusman Concert Hall on September 10 as Sunday Afternoons of Music launched its 26th season. Cellist William DeRosa and guitarist Eliot Fisk joined forces for an unconventional duo recital. These veteran artists offered a varied, generous program but the musical results were decidedly mixed.

DeRosa displayed superb musicianship and flawless instrumental technique. While Fisk’s finger work was skillful, his playing was sometimes tentative. The artists’ best joint offerings were their opening and penultimate pieces. They launched the afternoon with J.S. Bach’s Adagio from the organ Toccata in C, arranged by Alexander Siloti (a pupil of Liszt, cousin of Rachmaninoff, and confidant of Tchaikovsky). DeRosa and Fisk’s eloquent, felicitous phrasing vividly illuminated Bach’s nobility of utterance. 

Near the program’s conclusion, they offered an elegant version of Enrique Granados’s Orientale. The sultry, dark, velvet tone of DeRosa’s cello really glowed in this vignette. While their performance of Manuel De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance was properly incendiary, the players’ collaboration needed tightening. In the Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thais, DeRosa’s gorgeous tone and aristocratic shaping was complemented by Fisk’s finely chiseled guitar line.

Fisk’s solo sets were inconsistent. While De Falla’s only guitar piece Homenaje pour le tombeau de Debussy was deftly stated and replete with instrumental color, Fernando Sor’s Introduction, Theme, and Variations on a Theme of Mozart was more efficient and dutiful than effervescent. In transcriptions of three harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, Fisk captured the elegiac nature of the central sonata but the outer movements lacked sparkle. Scarlatti’s works proved ill suited to the guitar. In a series of three Spanish pieces by Isaac Albeniz and Ernesto Haffter, Fisk (whose mentor was the Spanish master of the guitar Andres Segovia) offered renditions that were strongly characterized, stylish, and agile. 

J.S. Bach’s Suite No.3 in C Major proved a brilliant display of DeRosa’s artistry. His sublime reading of the grave Sarabande seemed to make time stand still. His broad, refined playing was the sine qua non of mature artistic expression. The cellist’s vigorous readings of the other movements danced in spirited Baroque cadence. DeRosa’s vibrant; deeply felt playing recalled the first great interpreter of this music – Pablo Casals. Performances of Bach’s music on this level are rare indeed.

In his Suite for Solo Cello, the renowned Spanish cello virtuoso Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966) treated the instrument like a guitar. Flamenco effects and repeated strumming abound in this showpiece. Only the best bravura cellists need apply to play this score. DeRosa turned it into a joyous display of virtuosic abandon. His rich, seamless line and nobility of phrase made that warhorse The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals) by Saint-Saens into the ultimate irresistible sweet treat.

Although their performances were highly uneven, DeRosa and Fisk offered lively repertoire and some fine playing. Their program was the perfect confection for a warm Sunday afternoon.

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