Beethoven
Sonata for piano and cello in F, Op.5/1
Chopin
Sonata in G minor, Op.65
Gabrielli
Ricerar No.7 for solo cello
Martinů
Cello Sonata No.1
Popper
Ungarischer Rhapsodie, Op.68

Richard Harwood (cello) &
Christoph Berner (piano)
This enterprising recital showcased Richard Harwood, winner of last year's biennial Pierre Fournier Award, which was founded two years after the great cellist's death in 1986. Jointly organised with the Royal Northern College of Music International Cello Festival, one part of the prize is the promotion of a Wigmore Hall recital, which is accompanied by a CD of the concert. The heavyweight panel for the 2004 competition included Ian Brown, Colin Carr, Karine Georgian, Ralph Kirshbaum, Raphael Wallfisch, Eleanor Warren and Moray Welsh. After playing for that jury, this concert should have seemed like light relief.
In fact, finely played though most of the programme was, it proved a curiously restrained affair. Necessary though competitions are, perhaps we – the listeners – expect too much from the winners. In turn, faced with this kind of exposure, the performers come under pressure to play it safe, especially when a concert is being recorded as a calling card. In this instance, one could admire but was seldom moved, a pity since both Harwood and Christoph Berner are fine musicians who in other circumstances might have made more of an impression.
Playing a 1682 Rugeri, Harwood has a notably sweet, soft-grained tone as was immediately apparent from his subtle playing of the opening Adagio sostenuto of Beethoven's F major Sonata. In the succeeding Allegro there was a slight tendency to push the tempo. However the Vienna-born pianist contributed some notably sensitive and stylish playing to this large-scale work, one designated ‘for piano and cello’, and both performers were particularly successful in avoiding any sense of inflation in music which can all too easily be subjected to excessive interpretative weight. The links with the world of Haydn were clear.
Rather less satisfactory was the Chopin. Well enough played, it came across as rather bland, lacking real fire and temperament, especially in the polonaise second movement. A more assertive pianist would have helped. The brief Largo, the Sonata’s emotional core was quite beautifully given, but the other movements definitely needed a shot of adrenaline.
After the Ricerar for solo cello, listed here as No.7, by the Bologna-born Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690) – a piece written, it seems, around the same time as Harwood’s cello was being made, and music for which Harwood obviously feels a particular affinity (the composer seemingly not part, given the different spelling, of the famous Gabrieli clan) – came Martinů's 1939 Cello Sonata. The date says it all. Written for Fournier, this is a wonderful piece, full of foreboding, especially the Largo's soaring cantilena; it received a thoroughly convincing performance with both performers fully engaged. Berner's crisp, slightly understated piano was just right for the finale's persistent syncopation.
To round off, both performers let their hair down or more accurately ‘hammed it up’ with the outrageous Hungarian Rhapsody of the David Popper (1843-1913) which acted as a kind of built-in encore. To be honest, after the deeply-felt Martinů I would have happily settled for the official encore, an affecting rendition of Glazunov's Chant du Ménéstrel.

 

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