United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival – Debussy, Kurtág, Britten, Rachmaninov: Natalie Clein (cello), Håvard Gimse, Three Choirs Festival, Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, 31.7.2015. (RJ)
Debussy: Cello Sonata
György Kurtág: Hommage à John Cage, Az Hit, Shadows (from Signs, Games and Messages)
Britten: Cello Concerto in C, Op 65
Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in C minor, Op 19
Hereford folk must be the most pious in the country. Within a stone’s throw of the Cathedral the city boasts two enormous medieval churches, St Peter’s and All Saints’, the latter known as much for its gastronomic nourishment as its spiritual refreshment. And for this afternoon recital I discovered yet another large church, mid Victorian, nestling in the western suburbs, light and welcoming and boasting ideal acoustics for a chamber music recital.
Natalie Clein and Norwegian pianist Håvard Gimse had chosen an interesting programme of 20th century music culminating with a Rachmaninov blockbuster, which admittedly only just qualifies as a 20th century work.
The Debussy Sonata from 1915 was planned as one of a series of six works for different instruments of which only three were composed. Its discarded title “Pierrot angry at the moon” offers a clue as to the unusual nature of the work, such as the opening prologue which encompasses a range of emotions including nervousness and edginess, but with a wonderfully rhapsodic melody for cello, too. In the following Serenade Clein’s cello did service as a guitar, mandolin and flute with Gimse’s piano depicting a nocturnal landscape. The nervousness returned in the Finale with its wild Balkan folk dance rhythms interspersed with a more gentle melody.
Mr Gimse was given a short respite as Natalie Clein played three short solo pieces by Kurtág. In Hommage à John Cage the intensity of the silence seemed as important as the brief musical phrases. By comparison Az Hit was more melodious and meditative, while Shadows. starting in the lower register/ had a somewhat sinister feel.
Britten’s relationship with the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich proved a very fruitful one as is evidenced by the Cello Sonata in C. This is sometimes described as a sonata for cello and piano as both instruments are essentially equal partners, not least in the opening Dialogo which starts off with fractured musings from the cello with the piano filling the rhythmic spaces with sonorous, rising parallel thirds – material which is recycled throughout the work.
The Scherzo was a robust, percussive movement in which Clein played pizzicato throughout, but she came back into her own in the haunting Elegia which, while passionate at times, also included a lovely quiet passage above a shimmering piano accompaniment. There was a macabre atmosphere in the Marcia which erupted into a wild Witches’ Sabbath before the music died away with eerie harmonics and sul ponticello playing. The duo then launched into an exciting perpetuum mobile ending with a satisfied (and satisfying) flourish.
Håvard Gimse’s CV notes that in addition to being an “accompanist of choice for many of Scandinavia’s finest artistes” he has also 30 piano concertos in his repertoire. It was probably the latter attribute which stood him in such good stead in the final work on the programme in which arguably the piano has the lion’s share of the work. However there are plenty of opportunities for the cello – in the rhapsodic melody which appears in the first movement, for instance, which gains in intensity and radiance as the movement progresses. It was followed by the impish, bustling Scherzo which was very much like a race to the finish. One felt that Russia’s soul was being laid bare in the ravishing Andante with soulful plating from Natalie Clein. The finale started off as a robust romp with an appealing vivacity, but Rachmaninov never misses a chance to provide a elements of Romantic fervour which soared into the stratosphere in then second theme. The well matched duo worked hard to give a stunning performance which ended in a technical display of sheer brilliance which delighted the capacity audience.
For their encore Natalie Clein and Håvard Gimse offered a quiet yet moving account of Bloch’s Prayer from Jewish Life. Eminently suitable for a house of worship such as Holy Trinity, it clearly went down a treat with the pious Herefordians.