Not long ago, staging a concert that featured ancient instruments was a sure-fire draw. Nearly any group of amateur tootlers, especially if garbed in anything resembling period costume, would bring an audience just to entertain the exotic sounds of recorder, krummhorn or sackbut. And in those urbane centers where early music flourished, if, say, a harpsichord player donned a brocade coat and a powdered peruke, it was deemed the last word.
Fortunately, musical expectations have matured beyond the superficial infatuation with strange timbres and period clothes. Due in part to the plethora of high-performance early-music recordings, we now quite properly expect from any ensemble using authentic instruments the same energetic and professional musical communication we demand from one employing more familiar instruments.
Thomas Stauffer and Cynthia Darby's Sunday evening concert of late 18th-Century repertory for Baroque cello and fortepiano (a genteel predecessor to the modern piano) at San Diego State University did not quite realize that lofty goal. While both performers are thoroughly professional--Stauffer is a member of the SDSU music faculty as well as principal cello in a couple of local orchestras--and each exuded a highly cultivated musical sensibility, their instruments kept getting in the way of their music-making. For Stauffer, the problem was a recurring intonation struggle with his short-necked, peg-less, restored 18th-Century cello; for Darby, it was the muffled, unresonant timbre of her kit-built fortepiano patterned after a 1784 Stein instrument.
The evening, however, was not without its insights and pleasures. The Beethoven Variations on a Duet from Mozart's "Magic Flute" bristled with playful diversions that Darby and Stauffer tossed back and forth with gentle wit and good humor. Another selection that suited both instruments and performers was a sonata by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, one of the lesser Bach sons. Stauffer served up this morsel with graceful, energetic phrasing that never descended to fussy over-articulation.
In the first two movements of Beethoven's G Minor Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2, both players' tightly coordinated ensemble gave free rein to the composer's Sturm und Drang rhetoric with stylish bravado. Darby, who exhibited far too much emotional reserve and technical caution most of the evening, opened up in these movements. The final rondo, however, turned out to be a reprise of earlier problems.
The concert opened with a late Baroque sonata by Francesco Geminiani, a piece that demanded the slightly percussive articulation of harpsichord continuo in a room as dry and unforgiving as SDSU's Smith Recital Hall. Darby's fragile fortepiano chords all but disappeared under Stauffer's effusive realization of the florid cello line.