It’s rare to be at a concert, of any genre, and to experience a very profound sense of involvement on the part of the performers, combined with total commitment to the music, both in terms of fidelity to the written score and integrity of performance. But that is what we enjoyed at the fourth chamber music Prom of the season, in a concert by three young performers (two of whom were making their Proms debut) of music by Debussy and Ravel.

Jennifer Pike  ©  Eric Richmond
Jennifer Pike
© Eric Richmond

Violinist Jennifer Pike was joined by cellist Nicholas Altstaedt and pianist Igor Levit in a programme to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy. These three young performers brought a fresh yet insightful approach to the music they performed (Altstaedt and Levit are BBC New Generation Artists, while Pike was a BBC Young Musician of the Year winner and a former beneficiary of the New Generation Artists scheme), and they demonstrated a maturity and profound empathy with the music that more seasoned performers might envy.

The Violin Sonata was one of Debussy’s last compositions, the third in a projected series of six sonatas for various instruments (he finished only the Cello Sonata and Sonata for flute, viola and harp), and was completed when he was dying. In her introductory interview, Jennifer Pike described the work as one of “limitless possibilities”. In it, Debussy looks forward to the abstraction of composers such as Messiaen, and hints at what musical wonders he might have produced, had he not succumbed to cancer at the age of 55.

Harmonic concerns do not overly trouble Debussy in this sonata: harmonies are used for colour and timbre, while the rhythmic interplay between violin and piano, rather than strict harmonic progressions, provides momentum throughout the first movement, and creates a constant undercurrent of nervous urgency which runs through the entire work. This was superbly handled between Pike and Levit with an understated synergy, which allowed both players to exquisitely highlight the details of the score. Pike’s interpretation was cool, modern and spontaneous, alive to every yearning, falling phrase and sensuous nuance, combined with beautiful quality of sound, and rhapsodic moments of haunting mystery, particularly in the final movement.

The Cello Sonata is even more forward-looking and experimental, and it must have come as quite a shock to the concert-going public in 1915 to be presented with a work of such startling modernity with its array of cello effects: vibrant and jazzy pizzicato, glassy ponticello (playing near the bridge of the instrument) tremolo passages, and fluid flautando (‘flute-like’). Yet, despite this, the sonata remains true to its classical antecedents: the piece begins and ends in D minor in the just the way a sonata by Mozart would, and includes a recapitulation, a standard device in a classical sonata. Debussy originally called the work ‘Pierrot Angry at the Moon’: the sonata was composed while the Great War raged around him, and the overall mood of the work is sad yet ironic.

The sonata opens with a noble statement in the piano, elegantly articulated by Levit, to which the cello offers a highly ornamented response. From the outset, Altstaedt’s playing, rich in tone, displayed a wealth of expression, full of colour, percussive textures, nervous tension and energy. The second movement is a scherzo, in the Beethovenian sense of a musical joke, and in it piano and cello enjoyed a witty game of musical ‘hide and seek’, the use of particular cello effects creating an infectious sense of the fantastical. Occasionally, the piano sound was a little too bright, and Altstaedt’s tendency towards exaggerated passion, in sound and gesture, somewhat unnecessary, but overall this was a performance of great conviction and intensity.

All three musicians came together for the final work of the concert, Ravel’s Piano Trio. Considered one of the hardest works in the repertoire, Ravel himself said of its composition “never before have I worked so hard, with such insane heroic rage”: like the preceding sonata, this was also composed during the First World War (Ravel served in the Air Force during the war). Despite the emotional and social turmoil of the period, the work makes few references to the conflict. The Trio draws inspiration from Basque and Malaysian music and poetry, but takes a classical four-movement form. By balancing the sonorities of piano and strings, Ravel creates a true “sonata for three instruments”, a work of equal roles, rich in harmony and texture. Levit, Pike and Altstaedt brought eloquence and sensitivity to the first movement, with some fine unison passages from Pike and Alstaedt. The second movement was pulled off with jaunty panache, while in the orchestral final movement, all three performers demonstrated their absolute appreciation and, above all, enjoyment of this music.

PCM 4Frances Wilson reviews PCM 4 at Cadogan Hall: Jennifer Pike, Nicolas Altstaedt and Igor Levit in works by Debussy and Ravel.5