Cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown have a lot of irons in the fire. They teach and have busy solo careers. Canellakis is artistic director of the Sedona Winter Music Fest, Brown is a commissioned composer, and both are artists with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But it was their joint ventures that were on display at the Wolf Trap Barns on Friday, where their performance as the Canellakis-Brown Duo was prefaced in a pre-concert showing of a lighter side of the two — as comedians and video producers — with segments of their sarcastic video interviews “Conversations with Nick Canellakis” starring the two interviewing, in turn, pianist Jonathan Biss, the whole Emerson String Quartet and Leon Fleisher.
But it was Beethoven, Shostakovich, Chopin and Brown that the audience had come to hear, and these performances were serious and thoughtful. The two play with their antennae tuned to each other. Where needed, Brown shaped piano phrases like a bowed instrument, easily mirrored by matching cello lines, while Canellakis found ways to delineate legato passages with a pianistic sort of voice-leading. His quick vibrato distracted from the warmth of the slow opening movement of the Beethoven Op. 5, No. 2 Sonata, but his energy and technical agility gave both light and heat to the Rondo finale.
It was in Chopin’s G Minor Sonata (one of the rare times the composer dipped his toe into the non-piano-solo world) and Shostakovich’s D Minor Op. 40 Sonata, however, that the duo found their poetic chops. The Chopin glowed with warmth, and the Shostakovich, the evening’s highlight, offered a commentary on the human condition that ranged from vivid incisiveness to the most touching quiet introspection.
Brown’s brief, colorful “5 a.m.” (after Allen Ginsberg’s poem of that name) evoked the restlessness of the denizens of that hour, and Canellakis’s arrangement of a traditional Bulgarian dance, a perpetual-motion sprint in 5/4 time, ended the evening emphatically.