Gerhardt and Osborne Fight Adversity to Mine Musical Riches

CanadaCanada Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms: Alban Gerhardt (cello), Steven Osborne (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 5.11.2017. (GN)

Alban Gerhardt (c) Kaupo Kikkas

Bach – Cello Suite No.2 in D minor BWV1008
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.30 in E major Op.109; Sonata for Cello and Piano No.5 in D major Op.102, No.2
Debussy – Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor
Brahms – Sonata for Cello and Piano No.1 in E minor Op.38

One always speculates on what special conditions make for a great performance on concert night. Is it the preparation and full absorption of the pieces to be played? Is it the synergy between the artists at that moment? Is it the electricity in the audience? In this case, esteemed pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Alban Gerhardt performed after great travel difficulties, arriving from different directions with major delays and little sleep – and in Osborne’s case, little concert dress and only running shoes. Yet they gave one of the most communicative recitals seen in a long time. Part of the spontaneity may have come from the fact that the artists were too tired to hide anything or have any concert nerves, so they interacted with each other and with the audience in a totally natural way. A stimulating ingredient was the programme itself: three cello sonatas plus a major solo work each. Certainly a forbidding challenge for two tired artists! Yet they conquered it all. One might think of stronger and more demonstrative ways of playing Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy cello sonatas, but seldom ones as finely-detailed, committed and ‘honest’ as those given here. This was rare music making, fully at the service of the composers, perceptive, individual and transparent – with not a hint of the artists’ intrusion.

Alban Gerhardt led off the solo part of the concert with a finely-knit performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No.2. The cellist has beautifully clean registration and tonal resilience, which allows him to mine detail without ever having to add luster or dramatic point to his articulation. This approach might appear more refined and understated than some, yet it has beguiling strength of purpose and is always based on a discerning distillation of the score. What impressed from the opening Prelude was the sense of coherence, everything finely detailed and dynamically-terraced, yet embodying an underlying flow. The faster dances were on the surface very taut with an angular feel, yet revealed a myriad of attentive nuances. The Sarabande was likely the highlight, cultivating sparser, more intimate textures, and finding genuine nobility amidst the concentrated musing. If a comparison is needed, I was sometimes reminded of Heinrich Schiff’s astute traversals in terms of scale and motion. Gerhardt will record the complete set of six suites for Hyperion next year.

It was the sense of coherence that marked Steven Osborne’s Beethoven Sonata Op.109 as well. This was simply a lovely performance that moved from beginning to end with enviable economy, feeling and perceptive detail. The pianist performed the three prior Beethoven sonatas here last time (review) and, as was amply revealed then, he fosters a strong dichotomy between Beethoven’s private and public world in the late sonatas: the composer’s intimate world is often abruptly punctuated by hammered chords which bring him back to reality. If Osborne’s penetration of the complexity of Beethoven’s world may have come off as slightly cerebral before, this performance was notably freer and more lyrical, with a lovely suspended dreaminess to much of it. Of course, this sonata is more lyrical than its predecessors – and the artist’s absence of sleep may not have hurt either. But what beauty and sensuality Osborne coaxed from the top of his instrument (sometime almost Debussy-like), and what fluidity and tenderness imbued the music. There was a stream of consciousness feel to it all, endless motion and consuming feeling pushing on indefinitely, surviving the wake-up calls of stark reality, and finally coming home to rest after scaling the beautifully-appointed counterpoint.

It’s not surprising that putting these artists together as a duo yielded special results. Time and again, one noted their acute perception of the score and exactness of execution. Theirs is an intimate and finely-detailed way, developed with tight synergy. It is distinctive in that it appears to reverse the usual role of the cellist as the provider of ardour and colour and the piano as the custodian of continuity and line. Here Gerhardt’s resiliently-firm, attentive lines often provided the continuity while Osborne punctuated the route with wider dynamics and stronger changes in texture.

The performances of all three cello sonatas had enviable concentration, understated in degree but full of musicality and subtle feeling. Their Beethoven Op.102, No.2 was as economical as it should be, the opening Allegro and finale full of rhythmic cogency and pristine detailing, with perceptively-drawn lines from Gerhardt and plenty of imaginative touches from Osborne. The Adagio was striking in the way it highlighted the strangeness of Beethoven’s forlorn, musing world and its subtle ebb-and-flow. If one felt that the artists let the composer fully ‘speak’ in this traversal, similar feelings of purity came out in Debussy’s vastly different Cello Sonata. While the work contains striking dynamic gyrations, it was the attention payed to the delicate shadings and pianissimo markings that stood out. This playing was remarkably certain in direction and opened out a fine mix of contemplative space and idiomatic energy.

Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E minor was the big work on the programme, though it did not aim in this traversal to be as weighty and demonstrative as it sometimes is. Steven Osborne marked the Allegro’s structural junctures with fine weight and flourish, but this was essentially a ruminative performance that took one into autumnal sadness, becoming more private and quiet as things progressed, and ending with a brusque outburst of consternation. The finely-honed Allegretto continued to eschew excess romantic gesture, setting up a very tough and rugged finale, executed with sterling discipline and transparency. One had to admire the uncommon thoughtfulness of this performance, but I admit that the intensity may have been a little unremitting in the longer movements. It is not that the interpretation needed more big-boned weight; it just needed a hint of relaxation and caprice to mix with Brahms’ concentrated textures. Gerhardt’s seriousness of purpose and certainty of line are wonderful virtues but, as a passing observation, the cellist did not moderate his intensity level very much: he was as intense when playing forte as when playing pianissimo, and he did not seem to lighten his bowing or temperature very much within phrases. Perhaps a slight temperamental adjustment would make a difference here.

In any case, one supposed that the artists might just lie down on the stage after this grueling concert and the adversity leading up to it. But not so fast: for an encore, a slice of gentle Schumann was invoked (apparently the artists needed a ‘shoe-man’ to find the pianist’s missing footwear); and then both sat down at the piano and played one of the most beguiling and roughshod performances of a Dvorak Slavonic Dance I have ever heard. There have been few concerts in the Vancouver Recital Society’s 37-year history that offered more to write home about.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

Leave a Comment