They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Well, when it comes to the two Lunchtime concerts that straddled the change of year from 2017 to 2018, it would appear that it can. In December we welcomed the outstanding winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing with his siblings in the Kanneh-Mason Trio. In January partnered by the pianist Petr Limonov came another cellist, Laura van der Heijden , the English born daughter of Dutch and Swiss parents and when 15 years of age the 2012 winner of the competition. The former for very good reasons has loomed large in the classical music world over the last year, the latter had until this concert escaped at least my attention. The reason was not hard to find in the programme. She has clearly, and no doubt very wisely, combined an education with a quietly burgeoning concert career. However, be in no doubt that on the evidence of this concert she belongs to what is becoming a royal line of native cellists who have been revealed by the BBC competition, two of whom ,Natalie Clein who won in 1994 and Guy Johnston in 2000, are very well known in Leicester. In this concert she and Petr Limonov showed themselves both to be outstanding young artists.
As the music making proceeded one thing began to emerge which was not obvious before the recital. With the exception of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata I knew none of the works being performed but, having heard some of Schnittke’s and Webern’s other compositions, thought that the audience might be in for a testing hour. In fact, it emerged as a beautifully designed concert ,which in itself suggested the high musical intelligence of the designers. We were introduced to Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style ,humorous and ever alert to undermine musical expectations, expectations which were further confounded in Webern’s early Two Pieces for Cello and Piano which almost sounded like Elgar! This was followed by the ‘real’ Webern ,Op 11, which came across perhaps as the still centre of the concert, where musical statement was stripped down to its barest essentials. Then we were shifted back in a piece by Lyadov to the kind of short work for cello late 19c. Romantic composers could toss off in their sleep, before finally being pitched into Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata Op.119 ‘s teeming world of invention, in which the iconoclastic jostles with the romantic. It was a constantly intriguing journey. However, whilst it worked as part of a narrative musical pattern, I did wonder whether we had in the context quite enough time to get fully attuned to Webern’s ultra cryptic utterances. In this setting did it perhaps rather invite a response of ‘So what?’, I wondered. In 2016 a performance in the Museum of music of similar aims if rather greater length, a quartet by the legendary contemporary composer Kurtag, certainly did not invite such a response, love it or hate it.
As to the performances given by this duo, perhaps one might concentrate on the final work and for a change start by handing a bouquet to the pianist. There is sometimes an inclination to think that the pianist in a cello sonata is essentially an accompanist. Indeed, I have a CD of the Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata issued by a major recording company not so many years ago in which the cover of the CD is filled by a picture of the cellist with the name of the pianist consigned to the bottom corner, and this in a work written by one of the greatest pianists of all time who obviously had every intention of giving equal if not greater attention to the instrument. The same might apply to the Prokofiev Sonata written by another Russian virtuoso pianist. To say that Petr Limonov rose to the challenge is an understatement. In the third movement there was a fine swagger to a passage that reminded one of such things as the March from the Love for Three Oranges. Throughout, the typically staccato passages in the work were delivered with a thrilling accuracy, edge and crispness. Yet what most impressed in this context were two other things , firstly the amount of shimmering crystalline sound conjured from the piano at its quieter moments and secondly that even with the piano lid fully up he never drowned the cello. That does occasionally happen when even the most experienced of artists play in this intimate space for the first time.
Not that one felt this too likely to happen to this cellist. Laura van der Heijden’s range of expressive tone and dynamics seemed to me simply breathtaking . In the early Webern and in the Lyadov the cello sang with a thrilling purity. This was warmth without any blowsiness and in the parts of the sonata where Prokofiev’s rich lyricism was to the fore we were back in the world of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Yet she could also find so many other colours in the cello, astringency at times in the Schnittke and throughout where necessary a light and nimble fingering which made the cello sound almost skittish and dance- like. This was cello playing worthy of being called aristocratic so entirely musical was it.
One last point. The hour and particularly the performance of the Prokofiev raised in my mind yet again the nature of musical genius. Long ago in my youth the world of music, led of course by academe, worshipped on the altar of strict sonata form and this composer was thought far too prolix for his own good. Yet, constantly and increasingly I have found pleasure and excitement in music which teems with ideas and colour even if, or perhaps because, it runs the very evident risk of spinning out of control. In another art form which I know rather more about that is one of the things that makes Shakespeare what he is. The great Dryden at the end of the 17thcentury answered the wise men of his time, who wished that the dramatist had been born in their more polite, ordered and classical age, by simply stating that Shakespeare is the greatest of all dramatists because the whole world is in his plays. Perhaps after all we should trust the audience rather more as to what is worth listening to! Certainly this Duo produced a wonderfully invigorating hour’s entertainment and convinced me that at least I was right to follow my inclinations in regard Sergey Prokofiev. I really do hope we shall hear these two fine musicians again soon in another programme as thought- provoking as this one.
The fine tenor James Gilchrist with pianist Anna Tilbrook returns at the next Lunchtime concert at 1.00 p.m on January 25th with a mouth- watering programme of English song. Not to be missed.