Gentility and Grace from Queyras and Tharaud

21/01/2018

J.S. Bach, Shostakovich, Berg, Brahms: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.1.2018. (CS)

Jean-Guihen Queryas (c) Solea Management

Jean-Guihen Queyras (c) Solea Management

J.S. Bach – Viola da gamba Sonata No.2 in D BWV1028
Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40
Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano Op.5 (arr. for cello and piano)
Brahms – Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor Op.38

Although Jean-Guihen Queyras was recently an artist-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, this recital, with pianist Alexandre Tharaud, was the first time that I had heard him perform as a soloist.  Having been impressed in the past by the French cellist’s elegant contribution in several chamber music concerts, I anticipated music-making of refinement and gentility.  And, Queyras and Tharaud did not disappoint.

Queyras and Tharaud are a long-established duo and one can see and hear why they evidently enjoy each other’s musical company.  They presented a varied programme, but whether weaving with suppleness through the running lines of a sonata by Bach or discerningly painting the precise hues of Berg’s tiny musical brushstrokes, Queyras’s tone was unfailingly sweet and his phrasing eloquent.  While he did not neglect the music’s subtleties, the cellist’s manner and discourse were utterly unaffected, and perfectly complemented by the discipline and decorum of Tharaud’s fresh, articulate dialogue.  The French pianist was at times quite self-effacing in demeanour, although there were occasional flashes of power, colour and brilliance that made me wonder how much exuberance and pianistic-character he was holding in reserve.

Queyras plays a cello made by Gioffredo Cappa in 1696 (though he uses a modern bow and metal strings) and it’s pleasing to imagine this instrument figuratively journeying back to the eighteenth-century to be ‘re-united’ with Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard, which were written four decades later.  Queyras was quite sparing with his use of vibrato, producing a sound which was both clean and mellow, and was matched by the cogent clarity which Tharaud drew from the Wigmore Hall’s Steinway.  The brief Adagio was exquisite.  The two voices interweaved the melody, swelling and fading through the exchanges with magical fluidity; as Queyras allowed the final note to diminish and disappear, one almost wanted to chase it into the ether.  The ‘cool’ grace of the Andante was enhanced by the cello’s tense trills and cadential flourish although, despite the flowing tempo, the duo did not quite capture the siciliano lilt.

If Tharaud seemed determined to show that the Steinway could reproduce the hollow resonance of a harpsichord in the slower movements, his playing in the two Allegros was more muscular.  Indeed, I felt that in the bustling second movement he was pushing just a fraction ahead of Queyras and at times the music felt a little unsettled.  This breathless quality injected a fitting frisson in the finale, though, which was imbued with joy and animation.

The duo then leapt forward two hundred years presenting a thoughtful and at times quite reserved account of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata (1934).  In the opening Allegro, the players undoubtedly observed the composer’s non troppo instruction, and the cello melody seemed quite reticent beside Tharaud’s finely etched accompaniment.  Queyras nudged his bow tenderly through the cello’s accompaniment to the piano’s B major theme, the right hand of which sparkled like crystal, then assumed the melodic role, projecting, particularly in the middle register, with rich warm and increasing urgency.  There were lots of contrasting colours, especially in the development section: vibrant pizzicatos, dry repetitive quavers from the piano then quasi-orchestral resonance.  The yearning quality of the music never tipped into sentimentality though: in the Largo section, the muted cello perched with detachment above the piano’s gruff low quavers, which in the final bars dropped darkly into Hadean realms.

Queyras refrained from emphasising the accents in the sawing pairs of quavers that open the ensuing Allegro, while Tharaud’s theme was poised and proud, flashing with bright defiance at the top.  The movement was brilliantly executed, yet I missed a certain acerbic’ roughness’: it felt rather ‘aristocratic’, whereas I feel an urban ‘edginess’ stamping through this scherzo.  The unaccompanied melody with which the cello opens the Largo was haunting, even ethereal, played without vibrato and a with a ghostly air; and, as piano and cello spanned ever widening realms the players reached compellingly into the music’s eerie, disturbing depths.  But, again, I felt that the final Allegro, though vigorous and theatrical, needed a greater sense of a ‘nervousness’ which stays only just the right side of panic or mania.

Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, which are often performed in this cello arrangement, may be ‘miniatures’ but I felt that they made the strongest ‘musical mark’ in this recital.  Queyras and Tharaud seemed to delight in the meticulousness required to follow Berg’s hyper-precise, intricate performance instructions and in the short span available they expertly captured the distinct tenor of each movement.  After the Romantic warmth of the first movement, the elegiac intensity of the following Sehr langsam was striking, Tharaud’s full chords seeming to pose unanswered, or unanswerable, questions.  Queyras mimicked a tingly flutter-tonguing in the scherzo, Sehr rasch, while Tharaud’s ostinato chords at the start of the final Langsam established an ominous mood which intensified through the cello’s chromatic explorations, before both voices dissolved into a disturbing nothingness.

This very month, Queryas and Tharaud have released their first Erato recording, of Brahms’s two cello sonatas and the players’ own transcriptions of six of the composer’s Hungarian Dances.  And, so it was not surprising that they chose to end their recital with Brahms’s E minor Sonata, which they played with wonderful lyricism, fluency and rich warmth.  Their performance was greatly appreciated by the Wigmore Hall audience, and the sonata was undoubtedly beautifully played.  But, this was genteel, patrician Brahms: Brahms the Classicist, rather than Brahms the Romantic.  It’s true that the sonata does seem to look back to the composer’s historical predecessors (and the final Allegro takes its theme from ‘Contrapunctus 13’ from Bach’s Art of Fugue).  And, the duo communicated the gallant elegance of the Allegretto quasi Menuetto, Queyras employing a surprisingly legato stroke in the dancing staccato theme – thereby lessening the contrast with the flowing scales of the Trio section – and Tharaud’s making the right-hand trills ring crisply.

But, the urgency and drive derived from Brahms’s cross-rhythmic interplay – in the codetta at the end of the exposition of the opening Allegro non troppo, for example, or the springy second-beat accents in the fugato finale – was not explored to the full, with a resultant lessening of tension and weakening of the expressive impact of the score’s structural landmarks and turning-points.  As I listened, I wavered between being beguiled by the beauty and graciousness of the sound and longing for more strife and ‘ache’.

Two Hungarian Dances made for enchanting encores, in which the duo finally seemed more forthcoming and relaxed, the expression more ‘free’.  Perhaps the celebratory glass of bubbly, to celebrate their new disc, that they shared before the final Dance helped!

Claire Seymour

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