Alban Gerhardt Plays Bach and Ligeti in Cardiff

Bach, Ligeti: Alban Gerhardt (cello), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff 10.4.2011. (GPu)

Bach, Suite for Cello Solo no.1 (BWV 1007)

Ligeti, Sonata for Cello Solo

Bach, Suite for Cello Solo no.6 (BWV 101)

I had much admired the work of Alban Gerhardt when I had previously heard him as a concerto soloist; it wouldn’t necessarily follow that he would turn out to be a master of the repertoire for solo cello, but I had high hopes; they were very much fulfilled at this Sunday afternoon recital in the Hoddinott Hall.

His programme – played uninterrupted in an intensely concentrated fashion – was dominated by two of the cornerstones of the solo repertoire (at least since their revival by Casals in the 1930s), in the form of the first and last of Bach’s six suites for solo cello. The two suites framed Ligeti’s Sonata for Cello Solo.

From the opening of the first Suite’s Prélude it was clear that Gerhardt was fully sensitive to the musicality of these suites, not merely to their technical fascinations. In the Prélude the sense of interweaving voices was delightful, the gradations of volume perfectly judged. A relatively leisurely account of the Allemande was characterised by some beautiful phrasing, while the Courante began with some moments of elegant hesitancy, before irresistibly dancing rhythms took over. There was an impressive dignity to the first Menuet, with an attractive – and unexaggerated – use of silence, giving phrases time to breathe and resonate. The whole performance had both elegance and intellectual/structural clarity

The first movement (Dialogo – Adagio rubato, cantabile) of Ligeti’s Sonata for Cello Sonata was written in 1948, when Ligeti was a student at the the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, for Annuss Virány, a cellist and fellow student; the second movement (Capriccio – Presto con slancio) was written in 1953 and added to Dialogo when the cellist Vera Dénes asked him for a work for unaccompanied cello. The two movements show us just how much the young Ligeti was heir to Kodaly and Bartok. In the first movement, Gerhardt made good use of the tonal range of his instrument (made by the Venetian luthier Matteo Gofriller) to realise musically the ‘conversation’ between two voices (which Ligeti later characterised as those of a man and a woman); in the ensuing Capriccio he responded superbly to the intense energy of the writing, full of aggressive rhythms. This was a passionate, but disciplined performance.

The Sixth of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello is the most remarkable of the set – the (very) brief programme note reminded us that Rostropovich described it as “a symphony for solo cello”. While he certainly responded to the kinds of qualities to which Rostropovich’s description points, Gerhardt rightly refused any temptation to inflate the work inappropriately (though there were, for my taste, one or two slightly over romantic phrasings in places). The melodic leaps and subtle harmonic implications of so much of the writing in this last suite can sound no more than merely very clever, but under Gerhardt’s fingers and bow they were fully in the service of a thoroughly musical purpose; dense textures were articulated with impressive clarity. In what was perhaps the highlight of the whole programme, Gerhardt’s reading of the Sarabande in this sixth suite was masterly, bringing out the gravity of the movement without the slightest sense of ponderousness, and finding in it a degree of meditative inwardness that was essentially spiritual

This was the last of the four ‘Performer Plus’ chamber music recitals in the Hoddinott Hall, all recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3. I very much hope that there will be a fresh series next year.

Glyn Pursglove