Monday 27 April 2009

Jean-Guihen Queyras/Alexandre Tharaud, Wigmore Hall, 27 April 2009

Wigmore Hall

Webern – Three Little Pieces, op.11
Brahms – Sonata for cello and piano no.1 in E minor, op.38
Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5 (arr. for cello and piano)
Debussy – La plus que lente (arr. for cello and piano by Léon Roques)
Debussy – Sonata for cello and piano in D minor

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)

This enterprising programme opened with an outstanding performance of Webern’s Op.11 Pieces. Absolutely every note told, almost – perhaps not even ‘almost’ – a melody in itself, yet never merely pointillistic; connections told equally. The rarity of the air breathed in the opening movement not only contrasted with but prepared the way for the violent beauty of the ensuing Sehr bewegt, which in turn brought us to the threshold of that extraordinary yearning intensity which characterises the final piece, its marking, Äußerst ruhig, almost as beautiful as the music itself. The final cello note was of truly unearthly beauty, leading us straight into the first Brahms cello sonata. Webern’s work proved not only a gem in itself but a prologue to Brahms’s sonata, making us listen once again to every note and to the connections between them and equally compelling us to sense the precariousness of Brahmsian tonality.

The opening movement of the Brahms was often understated though never reticent; the emotional impact of certain key moments was thereby allowed to register more powerfully than might have been the case with hearts fully on sleeves. An impassioned, indeed violent section in the development was a particular example of this; Webern returned, if indeed he had ever been away. This Brahms was noble, not self-pitying, modernist not comfortable. The clarity of Alexandre Tharaud’s piano playing in no way precluded a sense of mystery; it simply took such mystery to a more sophisticated level. What had begun as rather ‘French’-sounding Brahms in its tone, took on a more Romantic murmuring as we were led towards the ambiguous consolation – is it even that? – of the lullaby theme. Throughout there was an underlying menace, unease, especially from Tharaud. Jean-Guihen Queyras proved a fine partner, constantly attentive to the shifts of emphasis in the collaboration between two instrumentalists, not least when his phrases imitated yet subtly altered in retrospect those of the piano. My only real reservation lay with his fundamental tone, which could sometimes veer a little towards thinness, even rawness. I was not entirely sure, but I suspected that he might be playing on gut strings; there was certainly a suggestion of this in his playing, which could sound a touch forced at climaxes. Tharaud and Queyras adopted a sensible tempo for the Allegretto quasi menuetto; take it too fast, as happens all too often, and the shifting harmonies and rhythmic subtleties will perforce be skated over. Here we were treated to a winning, almost Schubertian lilt and grace. The trio had just the right balance of flow and hesitation. Tharaud’s expertise in Baroque repertoire made itself apparent in the fugal opening to the final Allegro. Queyras’s entry was rightly voiced as part of the overall texture rather than as a ‘solo’ voice; such a privilege had to be earned and even then would only be granted provisionally. This was an extremely troubled reading; occasionally, I wondered whether it might have yielded a touch more but perhaps that would have been to alter its character. Despite the slight lack I felt of a richer cello tone, there was a strong sense of the tragic to what remained a fine performance.

I had no reservations whatsoever concerning the performance of an arrangement (I know not by whom, but it was most convincing) of Berg’s Op.5 Pieces. From the opening bars of the first movement, we were reminded how strange Berg’s harmonies can still sound, if anything still more so than the sparer Webern, given the jostling and merging of the myriad of voices in Berg’s labyrinthine world. We stood very close to the Op.6 Orchestral Pieces. The slow insistence of the piano chords at the opening to the second piece proved interestingly reminiscent of the second of Schoenberg’s equally unusually aphoristic Op.19 Piano Pieces. Lyricism from the cello stopped short, quite rightly, from false consolation. The following piece, marked Sehr rasch, brought a wealth of tonal colours from both performers, the utmost rhythmical flexibility serving to portray a floating, indeed gravity-less world in which form is constantly re-created. Tharaud’s voicing of the piano chords in the final piece was exquisite, with a similarly subtle insistence to his performance of the second movement; Queyras’s uncertain, quasi-vocal lyricism was reminiscent of what we had heard from him there, conjuring up formal connections before our ears. A truly terrifying outburst was followed by desolate subsiding – not, however, into nothing, but into the opening of Debussy’s La plus que lente. Performed in violinist Léon Roques’s arrangement, there was an intriguing alternation between insinuating irony and something apparently more ardent, putting me a little in mind of Poulenc. Queyras’s tone here seemed a better match with the music than in the Brahms.

The final item on the programme was the Debussy cello sonata. Tharaud’s opening piano chords immediately put me in mind of the music of ‘old France,’ inciting a true sense of fantasy in Queyras’s response. Unsettling rumblings in the piano bass sparked off cello agitation, to which the instrument’s ‘natural’ lyricism attempted, albeit ever so equivocally, to respond. Debussy’s concision in this work seems to me almost as remarkable as that of Webern; that is certainly how it sounded here. The strangeness of the second movement’s opening pizzicato dance fully registered; for all Debussy’s classicism, this was modernism with a vengeance. Queyras was superbly partnered by Tharaud, able to suggest string pizzicato on the piano as if it were the easiest thing in the world. There was a wonderful give and take between the two musicians, so impressive that one almost did not notice it. Tharaud in particular imparted a clear sense of harmonic direction to the finale, absolute rhythmical precision from both players allowing full measure to the composer’s virtuosic flights of fancy.

As an encore, we were treated to the Ballabile from Poulenc’s cello sonata. This struck just the right note of exact whimsy, the contradictions in the composer’s lovable personality productively to the fore. There was exemplary clarity yet a palpably beating heart; ravishing piano tone gave way like a flash to aristocratic insouciance. Something serious, yet not too serious, lay behind this clown’s face.

This concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, will be repeated next Saturday at 7 p.m.