Proms Chamber Music 1: Debussy’s Cello Sonata, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit & Mozart K414 – Bjørg Lewis & Paul Lewis; Vertavo String Quartet

Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano
Ainsi la nuit
Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414 [version with string quartet]

Bjørg Lewis (cello) & Paul Lewis (piano)

Vertavo String Quartet [Øyvor Volle & Annabelle Meare (violins), Berit Cardas (viola) & Bjørg Lewis (cello)]

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 18 July, 2016
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The first Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall during the 2016 season was certainly not short of substance with three major works.

Bjørg & Paul LewisPhotograph: auspicious opening recital included Debussy’s Cello Sonata, a masterpiece remarkable for the range of ideas it packs into its short time-span. It was inspired by commedia dell’arte characters. The music is quirky, bizarre, playful and melancholic. Cellist and pianist need an exceptionally close understanding to make the ebb and flow of the music achieve a level of coherence. Husband and wife Paul and Bjørg Lewis had that understanding from the off. The piano introduction was commanding without being dominant before the cello entered into the dialogue in an almost self-effacing manner. Bjørg Lewis then gave the main theme a sombre and reflective air. The extraordinary middle movement has a stream of ideas that include strumming and was given an improvisatory feel. The Finale was bright and clear.

This excellent performance of a piece of complex colours and moods by two musicians working as equals was followed by Ainsi la nuit to help mark Henri Dutilleux’s centenary. This string quartet is in seven sections interspersed with four parentheses, which either anticipate or recall material, contributing to its sense of fluidity and cohesion. Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night has been cited as a source of inspiration as well as Dutilleux’s reading of Proust’s enfolding narratives of memory and the passing of time.

Vertavo String QuartetPhotograph: www.vertavo.comAinsi la nuit conjures up sounds of beautifully evocative gestures and colours, often suggesting a nocturnal world. The music nods to Webern and Berg as well as the night-music of Bartók, although Dutilleux’s individual voice shines through with his exceptional feeling for timbre and mood. The Vertavo Quartet gave the work a sense of structural unity and individual strands were clearly delineated although at times a greater sense of relaxation would not have gone amiss. Rhythms were precise and propulsive, the players capturing the music’s velocity and direction, and a sense of culmination was fully achieved.

The concert ended with the string-quartet arrangement of Mozart’s delightful A-major Piano Concerto, K414. There was a special kind of pleasure in hearing this intimate but masterly Concerto. This is engaging music of serenity and nostalgia and the interplay between a stylish pianist and a lively and sympathetic quartet was most appealing. Lewis handled the first movement gracefully to an airy accompaniment. The mood changed with the solemn slow movement, given with depth of feeling, and the Finale sped along, Lewis playing with lightness and good humour whilst the Vertavo members were at their most mischievous. It was perfect music for a summer’s afternoon.

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