A generous programme by Alban Gerhardt and Víkingur Ólafsson saw a tale of two halves, with the classical poise of the first followed by the more extrovert showpieces of the second. Not only was the content very different, but so was the effectiveness of the performances.

Alban Gerhardt © Kaupo Kikkas
Alban Gerhardt
© Kaupo Kikkas

The first half kicked off with the Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata no. 3 in G minor, BWV1029, a work of miraculous fertility of melody and ease of polyphony. It has that outdoor quality of some of the Brandenburg Concertos. This performance however, using a grand piano instead of a harpsichord, suffered from balance problems. The keyboard writing is so brilliant that the cello is in danger of being overwhelmed, even with the more translucent timbre of the harpsichord. Here Ólafsson was at times too assertive leaving Gerhardt too much in the background. It was only in the beautiful Adagio that the combination of instruments seemed to gel.

In Beethoven's A major sonata it was not so much a case of balance, but there seemed to be some intonation problems besetting the first movement. It felt as if Gerhardt needed time to warm up into the heroic pastoral world. The wonderful opening melody took a while to settle down and it was only in development section that you began to feel the duo fully engaged. This dynamism moved forward into the scherzo, as well as into the lopsided but charming finale. The duo eventually found the right tone and technical brilliance that is needed to reveal the not so hidden treasures of this most striking work.

As we entered the 20th century after the interval we also embarked on a journey of renewed vigour and imaginative force. Debussy's Cello Sonata in D minor from 1915, with all its colouristic and moody twists and turns, was projected with strength and confidence and for the first time you were able to see the qualities that make Gerhardt one of the leading cellists of his generation. Synergy between the pair was also the name of the game here and a real sense of excitement was generated in the finale.

Arvo Pärt's Fratres is a seminal work which exists in versions for virtually every configuration of instruments. The cello version has a particular earthiness and Gerhardt used his acute awareness of timbre to project all its facets, from guttural scraping to angelic whispers. The hypnotic nature of the piece was also well achieved with very subtle accompaniment from Ólafsson.

The evening ended with Stravinsky's Suite italienne arranged in 1932 from his ballet Pulcinella with considerable help from the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. And what a joyous romp this proved to be in the hand of Gerhardt and Ólafsson. The ballet, which set the template for neoclassicism in the 1920s and was never improved upon, finds a new sinuousness in this form. All the movements were beautifully characterised, with the languorous Serenata and punchy Tarantella as stars of the show.