One of classical musicians’ biggest jobs is deciding what to perform. They know the music — centuries’ worth. How does one choose?
Some of the best local folks to ask may be the longstanding Middlebury-based piano-and-cello duo of Diana Fanning and Dieuwke Davydov. The Davydov-Fanning Duo’s experience in the art of programming dates from the women’s first performance together at Middlebury College in 1976. (Vermont Symphony Orchestra conductor Jaime Laredo and his wife, Sharon Robinson, whose violin-and-cello duo has lasted at least 35 years, may be one of the state’s only small chamber groups to rival the women in longevity.)
“People always seem to think we put wonderful programs together,” says the Dutch-born cellist Davydov, sounding modest and a little surprised.
But that’s for a reason, according to Fanning: “We put so much effort and thought into our programs,” she says.
On Sunday, the Davydov-Fanning Duo will bring to Burlington a new concert of Couperin, Beethoven, Debussy and Mendelssohn that typifies its carefully considered programming. The musicians chose Couperin’s Baroque-era suite, Beethoven’s A-major sonata, solo piano pieces by Debussy and Mendelssohn’s D-major sonata for a host of reasons beyond simple love of the music. Other considerations included the concert’s structure and balance, the endurance of listeners and musicians, parallels in composers’ biographies, and homages of one composer to another.
The duo began with the idea of playing the Mendelssohn, which they hadn’t performed in 15 years. “We always wonder if we are still as good as we were,” Davydov says with a chuckle. She calls Mendelssohn’s second sonata for cello and piano “huge” but “kind of an unknown sonata. Not many people play it. It’s demanding, very long and tiring,” she says. “But the middle movement [the third of four, the Adagio] is one of the most gorgeous things written for the cello.”
That movement is Mendelssohn’s explicit homage to Bach, who had fallen into obscurity by Mendelssohn’s time, and whom he spent much of his career restoring to recognition.
Fanning calls the sonata “magnificent,” an “instant hit” of a piece Mendelssohn wrote in 1843 when he was “in his thirties, at the height of his powers, at the same time that he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The sonata’s fourth movement echoes that last composition’s famous “sparkling effervescence. That was his trademark. You can’t miss it,” Fanning declares.
From Davydov’s perspective on the movement, “The piano is so fast and crazy; the running notes are like [dropped] pearls — they keep going and going.”
Having decided on the Mendelssohn, the women — who both teach at Middlebury as affiliate artists — next thought of Beethoven’s third sonata. Like Mendelssohn, Beethoven wrote his sonata “in his thirties, at a time of incredible creativity,” Fanning says. That is also the period when he composed his fifth and sixth symphonies.
While then “exploding with music,” as Fanning puts it, Beethoven was also innovating: He was beginning to turn music in the direction of what is now called Romanticism, and his A-major sonata was the first in classical music to accord equal importance to the cello and piano parts. Previously, cello was treated as an accompaniment to the piano. Partly for this reason, says Davydov, the A-major sonata is “the most loved cello duo.”
Both composers were also pianists who wrote the sonatas for themselves, Fanning notes — resulting in “extremely difficult and brilliant writing” for the piano in both cases. And both composers used scherzos as their second movements, though Beethoven’s earlier one, from 1808, is considerably darker. Fanning sums up the parallels by noting that both compositions are “very, very big pieces in terms of time and weight.”
Which is why the sonatas needed to be separated by an intermission — to give the musicans a break as much as the audience — and why it made sense to preface each with what Fanning calls “the relief of French music.”
Davydov, who also plays in the VSO, suggested the Baroque composer François Couperin — Louis XIV’s court composer — to open the program. The suite of five delicate pieces Couperin composed in the early 1700s for harpsichord and four or five other instruments (though not cello, which began to standardize in size and form around 1750) seemed to her “very pleasant to start an evening or afternoon concert with.”
Fanning points out that, in his day, Couperin and his family were “the most important composers in France,” but he’s rarely played today except on the harpsichord, “and it’s a shame.” The pieces the duo will play were transposed for piano and cello in 1924 by French cellist Paul Bazelaire, who — like Mendelssohn with Bach — was attempting to return Couperin’s music to prominence. Now Fanning and Davydov are taking up the effort. “If this is a way to get people interested in Couperin, it would be wonderful,” Fanning says.
Fanning, who also maintains a career as a soloist, will play the last two of Debussy’s three Estampes (“Engravings”) before the program’s final piece, the Mendelssohn. Besides the appeal of another Frenchman to balance out the sonatas, and the contrast offered by solo piano, the pianist saw the choice as highlighting a parallel between Debussy and Beethoven. Both were innovators and revolutionaries, she points out; Debussy originated what came to be known as Impressionist music.
Davydov and Fanning debuted this four-piece program at Middlebury College and a New Hampshire retirement home last week; after Burlington, the duo will bring it abroad next spring for their seventh European tour through France, Switzerland and Holland. Their audiences, one imagines, will vary widely in experience and background.
As Davydov points out, most audiences “come just to hear music played beautifully.” But the kind of thought that goes into an excellent program is hardly lost on listeners, Fanning says: “The logic of the structure, whether you’re conscious of it or not, is part of the pleasure of the concert. You don’t have to know anything about music to enjoy it. You feel it.”
The Davydov-Fanning Duo: “Poetry in Sounds,” final concert of the Cathedral Arts Evening/Weekend Series, Sunday, June 16, 4 p.m., at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington. flynntix.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Longtime Musical Partners Fanning and Davydov Talk Programming, Duetting and Classical Hits"