Many ascribe the cello's popularity to it sounding the closest instrument to the human voice, encompassing the range from basso profondo to soaring soprano. It's also an instrument one has to practically embrace in order to play. No wonder people love it. And no wonder King's Place year-long “Cello Unwrapped” series is proving such a success, with inventive programming and starry names to draw audiences. Narek Hakhnazaryan may be a less starry name for now – and a tricky one to pronounce – but on the basis of this recital he is destined to join the cellists' firmament.

Narek Hakhnazaryan © Marco Borggreve
Narek Hakhnazaryan
© Marco Borggreve

His programme with Kazakhstani pianist Oxana Shevchenko was titled “Russian Soul”, though “Armenian Soul” would have been just as apt, with a trio of works in the first half drawn from Hakhnazaryan's homeland. Framing the recital, the Russian part paid tribute to the great cellist Anatoly Brandukov who, as a child, saw Berlioz conducting Beethoven, yet lived to witness the emergence of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the 1920s. Brandukov studied with Tchaikovsky, who composed his Pezzo capriccioso for him, as well as arranging his piano Nocturne. Sergei Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata was dedicated to Brandukov, cellist and composer giving the première in December 1901.

Hakhnazaryan seems a quiet, modest young man. From the first bars of Tchaikovsky's Nocturne, he immediately struck a calm, composed manner. Eyes closed most of the time and leaning right over his cello, he wasn't anxious to force his sound, relying instead on restraint and a beautiful cantabile line to draw us in. Vibrato teased out a myriad of colour and even in the most furioso section of the Pezzo capriccioso, his bowing was incredibly deft and light.

In the Armenian section, Hakhnazaryan caressed in the familiar Lullaby from Khachaturian's ballet Gayane. Unfamiliar fare came via Alexander Arutiunian's Impromptu, where vigorous spiccato and steely pizzicatos made up for a slightly scrambled start, and Adam Khudoyan's emotional sonata for solo cello. The latter premiered in 1961 and commemorates, in its mournful second subject, the 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turkish forces between 1915 and 1923. Staying solo, Hakhnazaryan then pulled out his party piece to conclude the first half – Italian composer Giovanni Sollima's Lamentatio, where the cellist has to sing as well as play. Intoning in a high baritone, like a cantor, he lulled us in before launching a dazzling display of cello pyrotechnics: skating glissandos and furious bowing, causing loose bow-hairs to fly as if Hakhnazaryan was casting a fishing rod.

Oxana Shevchenko © Emil Matveev
Oxana Shevchenko
© Emil Matveev

Striking in a scarlet dress, Oxana Shevchenko played just as important a role in the recital's success. Crouching low at the keyboard, she drew variegated tone, especially in the Khachaturian, where the chromatic, sinuous introduction adds the Armenian local colour. Shevchenko shaped Rachmaninov's long phrases tenderly in the sonata, creating the atmosphere of wistful melancholy beautifully at the start of the Andante third movement, closing it with a trickling cascade. “Cello Unwrapped” title aside, it would have been wonderful if she'd been given a solo number in the programme.

The Rachmaninov was superbly played, from its musing, questioning opening, through its Allegro scherzando, scuttling like a malevolent gnome, to the passionate finale, where Hakhnazaryan drew muscular tone and walnut darkness from his 1707 Guarneri. The encore was easy to predict, but perfect – Rachmaninov's Vocalise drawing further comparisons to the human voice. And why not? This young Armenian makes the cello sing.