Alban Gerhardt at Wigmore Hall – Bach & Kodály

Suite No.4 in E flat for unaccompanied cello, BWV1010
Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8

Alban Gerhardt (cello)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 16 June, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Alban Gerhardt. Photograph: albangerhardt.comAlban Gerhardt began this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall with one of the six Suites written for the cello as J. S. Bach knew the instrument. The Suites advance in technical difficulty as their published order progresses, yet the Fourth is in some senses the most elusive, with tricky passages of multiple stopping and tuning to negotiate but also contrasting dynamics to consider. Gerhardt was clearly enjoying himself, however, and gave the music an air of serenity, especially in a rapt and timeless account of the ‘Sarabande’. The boisterous first ‘Bourrée’ employed an echo effect but didn’t quite have the mischievous asides some cellists employ, while the second danced lightly in response. The ‘Allemande’ and ‘Courante’ also exhibited delicate and graceful steps, each note played with meaningful poise, while the ‘Gigue’ was an uninterrupted torrent of notes, portraying a composer’s pen unable to stop writing. Gerhardt chose not to imbue the ‘Prelude’ with the grandeur it often receives, opting for a carefully moulded interpretation with opportunities for reflection.

Rubato was also prominent, so too the use of silence, in Gerhardt’s performance of the Solo Sonata of Zoltán Kodály, completed in 1915. This astonishing work retains a formidable raw power and advanced musical language, Kodály writing for the cello as several different voices, securing a number of breathtaking effects in the process. Gerhardt was equal to all these and more, the technical feats, clarity of tuning and part-voicing falling under his fingers instinctively, so that he could concentrate fully on expression. The folk elements so important to this piece were lucid, particularly in the ornamentations applied through the second movement, where birdcalls could be vividly detected. The broad-brush strokes from the cello’s lower notes – the bottom string detuned from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’, as instructed – gave the surest of foundations, while the soaring notes four to five octaves above carried their piercing intensity to the back of the Hall. Gerhardt’s grasp of the Sonata’s structure was a further convincing element, and as the finale galloped into its fast section there was a strong sense of ‘coming home’. With several massive chords, Gerhardt was emphatically there, the most intense part of the reading utilising polar ends of the cello with hugely impressive power but no little grace too.

Such grace was also evident in a softly essayed encore: the ‘Prelude’ from Bach’s First Cello Suite (BWV1007). Gerhardt successfully survived a cellist’s recurring nightmare, the instrument slipping forward while playing it! No damage – musical or otherwise – was done.

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