United Kingdom Beethoven, Fauré, Sibelius, Franck: Tim Lowe (cello), Andrew Brownell (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 4.10.2016. (CS)
Beethoven – Cello Sonata in D major Op.102 No.2
Fauré – Cello Sonata No.2 in G minor Op.117
Sibelius – Malinconia Op.20
Franck – Sonata in A major for violin and piano (arr. Jules Delsart for cello and piano)
Cellist Tim Lowe and pianist Andrew Brownell presented four substantial works, each technically demanding and profound of expression, in this rewarding and well-received Kirckman Concert Society recital at the Wigmore Hall. Of particular note was Lowe’s willingness and ability to stamp his own identity on works which possess an innate, strong and distinctive character of their own; and to do so in ways which were refreshing, thought-provoking and convincing. Lowe was matched by his accomplished partner for confidence of interpretation and musicianship, and Brownell was wholly and supportively ‘in tune’ with Lowe’s expressive intent.
We began with Beethoven’s D major sonata Op.102 No.2 which dates from August 1815, the year in which the ‘late’ period of Beethoven’s creative life is generally said to have begun. After a nimble-fingered opening gesture from Brownell, Lowe’s agility, control and precision were immediately apparent in the rising arpeggio with which the cello makes its entrance. Beginning assertively and with strong tone, Lowe effected a shapely diminuendo into the dolce theme though retaining a bright, focused sound throughout the piano melody.
The two players created a fluidity of movement in these opening passages of the Allegro con brio; as the semiquaver motif introduced in the first bar was extended, it was passed seamlessly from cello to piano bass line and back again, creating a lively mood underpinned by both precision and relaxation. Brownell’s touch was light, effectively complementing Lowe’s firm but flexible tone as the performers expertly communicated the compact concentration of Beethoven’s musical ideas. I found the tempo of the Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto just a touch on the fast side. A little more spaciousness – room to breathe at the end of phrases – would have allowed the emotions evoked to register even more penetratingly; particularly as the opening melody is somewhat reined in by the short rests which punctuate it at two-bar intervals. A slightly more expansive pace would also have allowed the elaborate embellishments in both the cello and piano parts to have assumed an essentially melodic rather than decorative character. The pianissimo closing section was, however, magical – almost other-worldly. The fugal finale, Allegro fugato, was translucent of texture but vivacious of spirit, the staccato breeziness and weak-beat accents sweeping away the prayer-like mood of the slow movement with robustness.
Fauré’s two cello sonatas are also conventionally seen as ‘late’ works, written when the composer was in his seventies. The Second Cello Sonata Op.117 was composed between March and November 1921, four years after deafness had obliged him to relinquish the directorship of the Paris Conservatoire. And, as with Beethoven, Fauré’s enforced introspectiveness might be thought paradoxically to have served to renew his means of expression. As Vincent d’Indy, Fauré’s fellow composer and compatriot, wrote when the Second Sonata was new, ‘how lucky you are to stay young like that’.
Lowe and Brownell certainly conveyed the vigour which underpins the sonata. The Allegro had a compelling forward motion, driven by Brownell’s off-beat quavers, which continue throughout much of this first movement. The duo relished the melodic richness of the contrasting material and Lowe’s cello sang powerfully through both the scalic first theme and the long-breathed falling thirds of the second melodic idea. The players seemed perfectly attuned in the canonic conversations through which Fauré develops his material and used these arguments to build tension towards the recapitulation, into which they eased cogently. The central Andante is an adaptation of the Chant funéraire which Fauré had written earlier in the year, having been commissioned to provide a work for the ceremony to be held on 5th May at Les Invalides to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Napoleon. The measured tread of the piano’s chords and the striving, arching cello melody recall the melodic power of the well-known Élégie, and the sustained evenness and intensity of Lowe’s extended line was impressive. As with the slow movement of the Beethoven sonata, though, the tempo felt a little too urgent, particularly when the opening material was reprised after the contrasting central section, and this diminished some of the movement’s darkness and poetry. Brownell shaped the complex harmonic arguments of the piano part of the Allegro vivo with impressive clarity, subtly drawing forth details of light and shade to create tension and release. Lowe demonstrated a natural feeling for the contours of the phrases. This was a polished performance.
Sibelius’s Malincolia Op.20 was written in 1900, shortly after the death of the composer’s 15-month-old daughter, Kirsti, on 13th February that year, during a typhus endemic. The work poses considerable technical challenges for both performers, but the rapidly heaving arpeggios and high-lying melodic lines presented no problems for Brownell and Lowe, respectively. Indeed, the pianist exploited the virtuosic ripples and full, syncopated chords to enhance the dignified intensity of Lowe’s cantilena.
I confess that, as a violinist, I am not generally very keen on the transcription of César Franck’s Violin Sonata for the cello. Before this recital, I had had a good-natured discussion with a friend and cellist about the merits or otherwise of such a transcription, and – with a violinist’s proprietorial scepticism, perhaps – I had remained unconvinced by arguments such as that the actual physical movement entailed in the act of playing the work on the cello compensated for the lack of an E string in the final movement!
In the event, I found Lowe’s performance convincing and enjoyable. His technical assurance ensured that the tone was unfailingly well-centred, perfect for carrying Franck’s roving melodic lines. If the Allegro’s rising chromatic theme lacked the rasping power of a violinist’s climb up the G-string, then elsewhere the concentrated impact of Franck’s lyricism was well-communicated by the cello’s soaring A-string. If Lowe and Brownell did not quite capture the melancholy mystery of the Recitativo or the brilliance of the concluding canonic dialogue, then the sonorous depth of the cello and the unanimity of expression achieved by Lowe and Brownell was satisfying compensation.