The strongest recitalists make a virtue of uncovering neglected repertory as well as reconsidering familiar terrain. In the first of a series of chamber concerts devoted to the primacy of the cello, Roger Lebow challenged himself first with a most difficult feat: a solo recital of unaccompanied cello music not including anything by Bach.
In the event Friday night, the results were serious and entertaining in the commodious Knauer-Johnston (commercial photo) Studio in Santa Monica. A friendly, hard-listening crowd shared in the Angeleno cellist's many skills and pleasures in music by Domenico Gabrielli, G.B. degli Antonii, Donald Davis, George Crumb, Arthur Jarvinen and Benjamin Britten.
Because of the soloist's deep concentration and solid virtuosity, Lebow's program became an ear-opener; one heard the music, not the difficulties of playing it. The two 17th century ricercars framed these 20th century essays without jolting, and contrasted with them appropriately. The masterpiece here, Britten's Suite No. 1 for solo cello, crowned the evening in an emotional high brought on by the cellist's probing and clarified performance.
Yet there were no also-rans in this lineup. Davis' alternately mysterious, earnest, contemplative and impassioned "Going On" (1991) held the listener in rapt dialogue. Crumb's Sonata (1955), less anguished but no less deeply felt, commanded equal attention. And Jarvinen's "Pizzicato" (1996), a physical workout for the player but compelling to the listener, held its place strongly.
In a musical world where program notes sometimes give information but seldom give joy, Lebow's own witty, fluent annotations gave both. One looks forward to subsequent events in the series, March 6 and May 22, when the cellist will share the stage with several colleagues.