Saturday, 7 March 2015

Gerhardt/Osborne - Debussy, Schnittke, Messiaen, and Beethoven, 5 March 2015

Wigmore Hall

Debussy – Cello Sonata in D minor
Schnittke – Cello Sonata no.1
Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps: ‘Louange à l’éternité de Jésus’
Beethoven – Cello Sonata no.5 in D major, op.102 no.2
Beethoven – Cello Sonata no.4 in C major, op.102 no.1

Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)

The Wigmore Hall’s ‘Alban Gerhardt Focus’ is most welcome, both in principle and, on the basis of this recital, in reality. His partnership with Steven Osborne offered an excellent, wide-ranging programme, and it was only in the Beethoven sonatas that Osborne’s relative reticence slightly disappointed, Gerhardt’s wholehearted commitment pretty much compensating in any case.

The opening of the Debussy Sonata was stunning: talk about the shock of the new! This was a well-nigh neo-Classical Debussy, though not a Stravinskian one; indeed, I am not sure that I have heard the work sound so close to Ravel. At least, that is, until a series of chords from Osborne left us in no doubt as to the identity of the pianist-composer. Gerhardt employed intense vibrato but his intonation remained perfectly centred. It was almost worth having attended for the movement’s final double-stopped notes alone. The ‘Sérénade’ likewise sounded almost as much ‘post-war’ – which of course it is not – as ‘of the Great War’: the political and the æsthetic have a more complex relationship than simplistic biographical correspondences would allow. The Parisian Prokofiev seemed more than once to beckon. Gerhardt’s repeated notes in the finale simply had to be heard to be believed; it was a passionate account we heard from both musicians.

Schnittke’s First Cello Sonata, dedicated to Natalia Gutman, has been recorded by Gerhardt and Osborne, though I have not heard the recording. If it approximates to this performance, it will clearly be worth hearing, even by those, amongst whom I count myself, who are rather less than Schnittke enthusiasts. Gerhardt’s opening cello solo sounded duly bleak, but it was striking how fully achieved was what one might call his ‘variegated bleakness’ throughout the first movement. The second movement, marked ‘Presto’ and certainly heard as such, had the immediate virtue of contrast, superlatively realised in technical and musical terms, insofar as the two may be distinguished. I do not recall anyone eliciting a louder, more clangourous sound from a Wigmore Hall piano than Osborne did at one point. The transition to the closing slow movement was very well prepared, the mood of that movement unerringly captured.

Messiaen’s ‘Louange a l’éternité de Jésus’ followed without a break, making the most of the juxtaposition of slow movements, but equally importantly, announcing a very different compositional ‘voice’. Gerhardt’s tone in particular was sweeter. The performance rightly spoke of faith, of devotion, Osborne’s chords voiced as perfectly as the eternal presence of the second person of the Holy Trinity would demand. Messiaen’s long melodies were of ‘heavenly length’ indeed, the serenity of the lengthy close verging upon the beatific.

The two op.102 Beethoven sonatas were heard in reverse order. Again, a different voice was proclaimed in the D major work. Not aggressively different, but meaningfully so. This was decidedly ‘late’ Beethoven, without sanctimonious labouring of the point. The radical nature of the first movement’s concision was powerfully conveyed, likewise the unity forged from its dialectical tensions. There was a different yet equal variety of intensity to be heard, especially from the cello, in the slow movement. Gerhardt’s playing was as rapt as one could have hoped for, capturing and holding the attention throughout. The dialectical quality to the performance of the finale was stronger still than in the first movement. There was clarity to the counterpoint, but also direction, although the latter might have been a little stronger from the piano. (It certainly would have been, had we heard, say, Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard, though there may well have been less accuracy to that putative performance.)  Nevertheless, this was a performance that for the most part fought the good fight vis-à-vis the extraordinary disintegrative tendencies of Beethoven’s material.

The C major Sonata’s opening might sound, on the surface, closer to Classical models – not that there really are any, pre-Beethoven, for the instrumental combination in question. However, there was nothing of the mere surface to this performance. I was struck anew by the disorientation of Beethoven’s modulations: Haydn significantly extended, one might say. The lyricism of the Adagio section to the second movement was perhaps a little plain-spoken, but better that then sentimentalised. Thereafter, tension quietly mounted, to be relieved in playful yet disciplined fashion: just what was required.