Subtle, Narek Hakhnazaryan is not. One glance at the programming for his bank holiday Wigmore recital – the first of what will be several performances here this season – could have suggested either a cellist struggling to control his ego, or one who simply wants to be challenged. Schumann, Brahms, Massenet, Albéniz – the big hitters were all here, but so, intriguingly, were far less familiar names: Tsintsadze, Shchedrin, Cassadó.

Narek Haknazaryan © Marco Borggreve
Narek Haknazaryan
© Marco Borggreve

This is meaty music, and from the first few notes of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A flat major, Op.70, it was clear that Hakhnazryan would not be taking any prisoners. Battling with an initial slight tendency to overplay, he settled in after a few minutes with long, languorous bow strokes. The Allegro, so often painfully sluggish, danced with a deliciously heavy tread, perfectly contrasting with the pianist Oxana Shevchenko’s poised falling scales. If the occasional extra open string was caught in his cross-fire, the passion that accompanied it earned our forgiveness.

Brahms’ Cello Sonata no. 2 in F major, Op.99, also began a little wildly, but Hakhnazaryan’s cross-string plucking in the Allegro vivace was mesmerising, and Shevchenko could have perhaps followed his lead and relaxed more into her rhapsodic passages. Some slightly questionable tuning higher up the fingerboard slightly marred the Allegro affettuoso, but Hakhnazryan played to the markings for the Allegro passionato, effortlessly passionate but ever in control.

The Wigmore audience, not normally best known for their tolerance, were completely under his spell: spontaneous applause, which followed several movements, was not tutted or frowned upon as is, sadly, often the case here but, if not encouraged, then indulged: Hakhnazaryan and his beautiful 1707 “filius Andreae” cello were giving everything to this concert – perhaps it was no so wrong to give some back.

The first half concluded, Hakhnazaryan said, the “traditional” part of the concert. Returning post-interval, he addressed the audience candidly but with great charm. Referring to his Armenian heritage, he explained his desire to play music that reminded him of home. The Georgian composer Tsintsadze’s Five Pieces on Folk Themes were cheeky snippets evocative of sun-soaked streets, flying skirts and, in the case of the second movement, Chonguri, (itself named after a four-string plucked folk instrument), a raucous village square, conjured by guitar-like strumming with an incessant pulse. The audience were not quite dancing in the aisles, but Hakhnazaryan’s enthusiasm was contagious.

Shevchenko’s poise here became a well-contrasted foil. Albéniz’ “Asturias” from Suite Española was well-balanced and although Hakhnazaryan’s vibrato was in danger of becoming over-wild in Shchedrin’s In the style of Albéniz, Shevchenko’s more subtle touch on the keys kept both works well-grounded. It is not quite true to describe the duo as the old clichéd fire and ice, but her control kept the works animated but not excitable. A well-controlled blaze.

Hakhnazaryan was particularly keen to tell the audience of the importance of the “Méditation” from Thaïs: so often played out of context, his reminder that the extract originated as an intermezzo for the orchestra as Thaïs decides whether to abandon her hedonistic ways and follow a monk to a life of sacred contemplation was timely. Hakhnazaryan’s interpretation of the well-known melody was a rare moment of introspection in the programme: measured, graceful, but never wallowing. It’s a fine balance, but Hakhnazaryan’s decision to play this as his penultimate number was telling: this was not a party piece, or an encore, but a moment of calm and contemplation amid the ruckus of Albéniz’s flamenco and Gypsy rhythms and the chaos of the dances.

Cassadó’s Requiebros felt a slightly odd choice to end with, although perhaps it and his rapturously-received encore, an Armenian dance (“As a proud Armenian, I can’t play something from Georgia and not from my homeland!”), were in a sense a reflection on how he views his role as performer, cellist and music maker. Despite a bold programme, Hakhnazaryan – and Shevchenko – are not style over substance. They are, instead, musicians who, one feels, play what they want to play for the joy of hearing the works aloud and, indeed, for the fun of it. And on a wet and miserable bank holiday Monday, with joy not always so easy to come by, who could begrudge them that?

*****