United Kingdom J.S. Bach, Marais, Poulenc, Debussy: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 28.10.2019. (CS)
J.S. Bach – Sonata No.2 in D BWV1028
Marais – From Suite in D minor (arr. Christian Döbereiner)
Poulenc – Suite français d’après Claude Gervaise
Debussy – Cello Sonata in D minor
There was not an empty seat in Wigmore Hall for this lunchtime recital by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud, and the space at the rear of the Hall was crowded with standing listeners. And, no wonder. This was a beautifully conceived and immaculately executed programme, infused with the spirit of the French baroque and presented with a perfect balance of gentility and expressive flexibility.
Queyras plays a cello made in 1696 by Gioffredo Cappa, with modern strings and bow. He uses vibrato sparingly and judiciously – and unpredictably, sometimes warming a lingering sustained note but elsewhere allowing a passing moment to flourish, like a candle-flame briefly burnished by a breeze. His tone is warm, particularly in the middle and lower register, but he can find a wirier intensity at the top, and seeks buoyant brightness, impassioned graininess or introspective calm as the music requires.
The recital concluded with Debussy’s Cello Sonata, composed in 1915; but, in spirit at least, it also began with Debussy. For, during WW1, Debussy’s publisher and friend, Jacques Durand, commissioned the composer to edit Bach’s six sonatas for violin and keyboard (BWV 1014–1019) and three sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard (BWV 1027–1029). At a time when, living under German occupation, he expressed a nostalgia for the music of Couperin and Rameau, ‘our old harpsichordists who produced real music in abundance’, Debussy’s interest in Baroque ‘ideals’ more generally saw him begin his own set of ‘Six Sonates pour divers instruments’.
Although we cannot, in the absence of an original manuscript, be certain when Bach composed his sonatas for viola da gamba, nor for whom – Christian Ferdinand Abel, who played in the Köthen ensemble led by Bach between 1717 and 1723, or his son, Carl Friedrich, who studied under Bach at the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1737? – it is clear from the first notes of the Adagio which opens the second sonata in D major that they must have been written for a highly gifted player. And, that Bach was using the form to experiment with the relationship between gambist and harpsichordist. It was this relationship, with the harpsichord often taking the lead – its upper line rising above the string part, the bass providing unobtrusive but unwavering support – to which Queyras and Tharaud drew one’s ear in a performance characterised by lucidity of texture, sweetness of tone, and an elegance that admitted spontaneity and freedom.
Those aforementioned bars at the start of the Adagio introduced a delicate conversation between cellist and pianist, above the steady rhythmic tread, the cello initiating, the piano intervening – coolly, gracefully, though sometimes with the slightest hint of mischief. Ornamentations and decorations were stylistically ‘correct’ but felt expressively ‘free’. Debussy may have lamented to Durand, somewhat tongue-in-cheek one presumes, ‘Never correct J.S. Bach’s accompanied sonatas on a rainy Sunday! … I’ve just finished revising [them] and I can feel the rain within me …’, but here the water trickled with delicious freshness and clarity. Such lightness also characterised the two Allegros: Tharaud’s running lines seemed impossibly crisp, clean and light-fingered, as melodic motifs emerged from and were subsumed within the continuous flow of semiquavers, Queyras occasionally dominating as the cello rose in register or indulged in syncopated exclamations. One could almost sense Bach smiling at Debussy’s complaint about the ‘several hundreds of pages in which you have to walk between rows of mercilessly regulated and joyless bars, each one with its rascally little “subject” and “countersubject”’.
It was the Andante, though, that seemed to compel the audience in Wigmore Hall to hold its collective breath, as Tharaud’s quiet but unceasing bass steps unfolded with a surprising dryness – a staccato tempered by the elaborate siciliano melody above, which brought discipline and daring into thrilling proximity. The players seemed almost to taunt one other with their closing trills which faded mesmerisingly into the piano’s delicately fan-tailed cadence.
There followed music from one of the most distinguished viola da gamba players of the preceding generation: a selection of movements from Marin Marais’s Suite in D minor as arranged by the German cellist and gambist Christian Döbereiner (1874-1961). The Prélude had a startling extempore quality, rhythm and ornamentation seemingly capricious though in fact meticulously controlled. I was put in mind of Schubert’s late piano sonatas, not because of any stylistic resemblance of course, but because of the way pathos and beauty were irrevocably entwined in melodic reflections which at times seemed to express a very modern, even existential, sensibility – one deepened by the dark fullness of Queyras’ double-stopped enrichments.
In the subsequent Couplets sure Les Folies d′Espagne – ten variations on La Folia – Tharaud’s initial decorative gestures seemed even more impulsive, but any hint of ‘flightiness’ was swept aside by Queyras’ vibrant tone and effortless leaps from the lowest to highest strings in the third, fast variation and the rhythmic authority of the triple-time fourth variant. Having coyly retreated during the cello’s ensuing dance, Tharaud’s piano was more assertive in the sixth variation, the vigorous bass gestures seeming to push the cello higher and encourage Queyras to articulate the principal motifs with renewed power. The closing sequence of variations brought about a reconciliation: first in a tenderly decorated lament, then in a gruff and rumbustious scherzando. A sombre and pensive recollection of the theme preceded the final two impish variations, whose playfulness was quelled by the quiet pathos and sad yearning of the concluding Sarabande grave.
Poulenc’s 1935 Suite française began life as an orchestral suite for wind instruments, drum and harpsichord designed as incidental music to accompany Édouard Bourdet’s historical drama, Margot la Rouge, and inspired by Le livre de danceries by the sixteenth-century composer Claude Gervaise. Poulenc later made an arrangement for solo piano and, in 1953, for cello and piano. Queyras and Tharaud relished the wit of Poulenc’s ‘antique’ strain, and the economy with which the composer integrates lyricism and dance. The staccatos and accents of the Bransle de Bourgogne were brusquely despatched: Tharaud was not afraid to stamp out the thundering bass, but the melody never failed to sing sweetly. After the hymnic simplicity and sincerity of the Pavane, in which Queyras contrasted the dark grain of the cello’s C string with ethereal flights to angelic realms, the Petite marche militaire was brisk and breezy, closing with a cheeky harmonic snub of the nose from Tharaud. The Bransle de Champagne and concluding Carillon rang out resonantly, the latter with particular exuberance, while the Sicilienne had an easy grace. Most striking of all was the Compleinte in which the duo found an amazing array of colours with which to convey the movement’s searching restlessness.
And so, we reached the final work of this recital, Debussy’s Cello Sonata. Here, the collaboration and conversation which had characterised the duo’s music-making thus far reached an apotheosis, the players seeming to breathe Debussy’s surges and retreats in perfect unison. Given the density of some of the piano writing, and its descents to the lowest regions, the players achieved a wonderful balance. In the Prologue, Queyras was never required to force his sound, able to project Debussy’s lyrical speculations and ruminations with beautiful tenderness. The accuracy of the ensemble playing at the start of the Sérénade, with its unpredictable bass stabbings and pizzicato darts and meanderings, was remarkable. Once again, the lightness of Tharaud’s touch in the rapid restless quivering of the Finale was astonishing. The animation, initially agitated and tense, gradually brightened into, if not quite ebullience, then defiance in the duo’s final syncopated assertions. It’s hard to imagine a performance of this Sonata in which the two partners could be more unified in their conception and execution of Debussy’s music.
The intimations of Spain which occasionally infuse Debussy’s final movement perhaps inspired the duo’s choice of encore. Rodion Shchedrin’s Imitating Albeniz allowed Queyras and Tharaud to tease us with their virtuosity and to indulge their own mischievousness through Shchedrin’s satiric wit – though, naturally, they did so with consummate poise and gentility.