An Unbeatable Wigmore Sunday Morning Coffee Concert with Nicolas Altstaedt

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Dutilleux, Britten: Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.11.2015. (LJ)

S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV1011 (c. 1720)

Henri Dutilleux, Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1976)

Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite No. 3 Op. 87 (1971)

Whether as part of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, a chamber ensemble, or solo recital, with a repertoire ranging from contemporary to baroque (using both period and modern instruments) German/French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt’s proficiency as a musician and technical brilliance as a cellist is irrefutable. A quick glance at his website outlines an astonishing list of repertoire and discography: As one of Boris Pergamenschikow’s last students in Berlin his passion for contemporary music was evident in his Sunday recital. Pergamenschikow’s recording of Henri Dutilleux’s Tout Un Monde Lointain won the Diapason d’Or; after Altstaedt’s performance of his Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a new Dutilleux recording would be most welcomed by cello and contemporary music enthusiasts alike.

Altstaedt’s well selected programme consisted of Benjamin Britten’s‘ Cello Suite No. 3, Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, and J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5 in C minor. This Sunday morning coffee (and sherry) concert at Wigmore Hall is part of an unmissable musical morning series.

Considered by Philip Brett to be the most passionate of Britten’s three cello suites, Altstaedt’s performance of No 3 was appropriately full of texture and vigour. Altstaedt created a sinister and sorrowful atmosphere with excellent use of silence against the backdrop of a pizzicato low C. This punctuation created a musical aposiopesis. With brave dynamic contrast Altstaedt dug deep into the strings for Britten’s more frenzied passages, demarcating the piece’s palimpsest nature. Altstaedt picked out Britten’s allusions to Bach’s own cello suites that inspired the composer in 1971 when he composed his own cello suite. The fond nostalgia within this section offered the audience a moment of pathos (foreshadowing the beautiful Sarabande from Bach’s fifth suite, played towards the end of his recital) and warmed Britten’s anguished, barren piece. Those who enjoyed this may enjoy listening to the twentieth century composer Dmitry Kabalevsky.

Altstaedt’s performance of Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher was astonishing. Performing a piece written by Dutilleux requires immeasurable attention to detail. The composer himself said in 2002: “I am a perfectionist, I know. I hate to leave a work in a form that doesn’t satisfy me.” Dazzling and virtuosic, Altstaedt’s tone sounded like a beam of sunlight piercing through a rainforest. Its piercing shafts emitted a yellow-green glow and radiated warmth around the concert hall. With a humble demeanour, Altstaedt performed astonishing feats throughout this short piece. With miraculous pizzicato, excellent use of the fourth position to produce a clean, rich tone during quicksilver passages, and flashy use of harmonics, chords, and runs Altstaedt was mesmerising. Perhaps keen listeners would consider Bartok an underlying influence.

Rounding off his recital with a performance of Bach’s much loved Cello Suite No. 5, Altstaedt seamlessly immersed himself into the Baroque world, with a little help from his Giulio Cesare Gigli cello from Rome c.1770. Altstaedt’s baroque is one of intellectualism and intimacy. It is direct, unfussy, and pitch-perfect. His wide-ranging dynamics and intuitive stress, created a natural, not over-egged, character of suffering met with compassion. Perhaps a little less hesitancy in the Sarabande would have conveyed the extension of silence (as Tortelier describes it), with more lyricism and transcendence. However, his Prelude and Courante were marvellous.

It leaves me to say that Altstaedt shone most beguilingly was when he was not heard. Of course, I do not mean this sarcastically, far from it. Altstaedt’s use of silences in the music allowed the listener to plunge into its depths and extract its character. This bravery, to give the listener enough space to partake in the musical meaning, was Altstaedt’s most daring and remarkable feat. With his perfect pitch, fastidiousness, focus, and sonorous tonality; Altstaedt acted as an architect, carving out a space in which the listener could enter at his whim. Altstaedt encouraged active listening and, for one (much too short) hour provided the most exquisite imaginary space in which to reside.

Lucy Jeffery

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