Nicolas Altstaedt & José Gallardo at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven, Prokofiev, Boulanger and Piazzolla

12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, WoO45
Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op.119
Nadia Boulanger
Trois pièces
Le Grand Tango

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello) & José Gallardo (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 19 December, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Nicolas Altstaedt and José Gallardo began a varied programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert with early Beethoven. The Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’, used by Handel in his oratorio Judas Maccabeus, are contemporaneous with the Opus 5 Sonatas for Piano and Cello, with the former instrument dominating. Gallardo took up the challenge with nimble fingerwork, though the ‘accompaniment’ from Altstaedt was mannered and often exaggerated in its phrasing. This did however highlight the humour within the variations, Beethoven clearly having fun as he plays the instruments against or alongside each other.

There was plenty of fun to be had in the Prokofiev, too, where the solemnity of the introduction gave way to an impish Moderato, the tempo pulled around a lot but always to complementary effect. Altstaedt successfully brought out the balletic poise of the finale’s main theme, after which the movement turned into a game of cat and mouse as the music sped forward. Both players were technically outstanding, and Gallardo commendably kept his full-bodied episodes within reach of the cello, careful not to overplay them. So fast were the closing pages that Gallardo’s page-turner would have done well to stay on his feet!

This partnership has already recorded Nadia Boulanger’s triptych of pieces from 1914. The three pieces occupy barely seven minutes, yet brevity of duration does not equate to a lack of emotional content, with the muted cello and watery, harp-like piano combining in an especially touching opening number. The stately, canonic second proved a nice contrast, while the third, a gallop in everything but name, found an attractive lilt to the Spanish rhythms of its central section.

Using the expressive qualities of his cello to full potential, Altstaedt took the lead for a passionate performance of Le Grand Tango, another example of Astor Piazzolla’s impressive bridge-building between Argentina’s national dance and Western musical forms. Gallardo, born in Buenos Aires, has these rhythms in his blood, but then so does Altstaedt, a German, the performance carrying a strong air of authenticity in the snap of the rhythms, the broad phrasing of the middle section and the soft, baleful harmonics the cellist applied in a brief period of reflection. From here it was lean, red-blooded music, finished with an utterly convincing flourish that rendered the idea of an encore redundant.

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