A Perceptive and Penetrating Partnership Between Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Shostakovich: Alban Gerhardt (cello), Steven Osborne (piano), LSO St Luke’s, London, 4.5.2017. (CS)

Alban Gerhardt (c) Kaupo Kikkas

Beethoven – Cello Sonata in D major Op.102 No.2
Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40

For this final concert in the BBC’s lunchtime recital series, Voice of the Cello, cellist Alban Gerhardt was joined at LSO St Luke’s by pianist Steven Osborne for performances of sonatas by Beethoven and Shostakovich.  The advertised programme had followed Beethoven with César Franck’s Sonata in A Major, originally for violin, but given that this series was designed to explore ‘key chamber music for the cello alongside eight world-class musicians’ – and that we violinists tend to be quite proprietorial about Franck’s sonata! – the substitution of Shostakovich’s sonata was, for this listener at least, a welcome amendment.

Three things were striking about this recital: the understated eloquence of the playing of both performers, their detailed attentiveness to expressive nuance, and the shared intimacy of their playing.  Gerhardt is not one to push his tone forward or engage in extrovert physicality in his performance; poise and gentility, intense focus – of concentration and tone, and controlled dynamism are more his style.  He plays an instrument made in 1710 by one of the great Venetian makers – Matteo Goffriller – and fully understands the way his instrument can ally richness and warmth with restraint.  Osborne matched his partner for care, precision, delicacy and measured power.  They were like partners in an operatic duet, singing suavely in unity, conversing in vigorously engagement, offering counter-views with courtesy but conviction.

Beethoven’s Op.102 No.2 conveyed the philosophical profundity of the ‘late’ period, without labouring the point.  Gerhardt’s delicate but meticulous articulation was complemented by Osborne’s variety of touch: this was truly a performance of ‘like minds’.  The concentrated rhetoric of the Allegro con brio was ‘humanised’ by the sensitive interplay of the two instruments, and in the development section the players were alert to every twist and turn of the musical argument, from the piano’s quiet staccato, to the warm blossoming of the song-like theme, to the volatile fragmentation of all elements.  The coda epitomised the motivic and dynamic range.

The Adagio con molto sentiment d’affetto, too, did not settle into complacent beauty, but verged from rapt whisper to intense song, the initial stillness swelling in the piano’s elaborations into a more revealing expression of emotional force.  Occasionally I felt that Gerhardt contained his sound too much, that he might have penetrated the piano’s developments more perceptibly; but, towards the end of the movement he judged the eloquent descents against the dark piano chords perfectly, using a fast and quite wide vibrato to hold the listener’s attention.

The last movement fugue confirmed the perfect accord of the two players: the cello’s opening scale was an insouciant invitation to the pianist to join him in musical arguments which were simultaneously playful and scholarly. The counterpoint was spot-on precise, but never mechanical – always rhythmically vitalised, articulated with the nimbleness and balance of an Olympic gymnast, and full of feeling.

To say that a composition by Shostakovich is ‘troubled’ is probably redundant, but the composer’s Cello Sonata Op.40 received its premiere in December 1934, in a period of great personal turmoil for Shostakovich, and also a time when his reputation as the enfant terrible of Soviet Union was threatening to stall his career and bring him into dangerous confrontation with the Stalinist regime.

One might intimate a ‘Romantic retreat’ in the even-tempered theme which opens the Allegro non troppo but Gerhardt and Osborne showed just how wrong this would be, moving from deceptive gentleness to resonant assertiveness – what a lovely C-string warmth Gerhardt conjured – in the blink of an eye.  The second subject, taken at a fairly relaxed tempo, truly fused the two voices in one song, and if Gerhardt knows how to spin an exquisite pianissimo at the top of the cello’s register, then Osborne can match him for clarity and shade, never relying on the pedal to do the work.  The vital ostinatos of the development section painfully foreshadowed the symphonies to come: Osborne channelled the composer’s pent-up anger through a disturbingly brittle sound which was countered by Gerhardt’s strong, full pizzicato.

They launched with spontaneity into the whirling dervish of the Allegro scherzo, Gerhardt relishing the exuberant, strummed pizzicato chords and whooping glissandi and harmonics; and if the Trio quelled the energy, it was always and evidently a momentary stay of an unconfinable quasi-demonic force.  The Largo quite simply made time stand still, so absorbing was the magic of Gerhardt’s quiet lament – who knew that beauty could be so bleak?  In retort, Osborne essayed a sneaky challenge at the start of the final Allegro, luring the cellist into the movement’s pungent nose-thumbing.

This performance demonstrated the players’ astonishingly perceptive and penetrating appreciation of the expressive voice of each composer, and how to articulate that voice with directness and freshness.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 12th May at 1pm.

Claire Seymour

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