In a recent sold-out Fringe appearance, cult comedian Daniel Kitson asserted that the reason we enjoy pizza so much is that it illustrates "our progress through the whole". This came to mind when reading David Matthews' excellent programme note for this concert which, although containing only four works, boasts 22 movements, excluding Beethoven's and Tippett's subdivisions. Matthew's descriptions certainly helped me track the performance. Perceiving form in Britten's near seamless, nine-movement Cello Suite no. 1 might be tricky, were it not for the modified recurrence of the opening "Canto primo." This work was always likely to call to mind Bach's Cello Suites. I felt this nowhere more so than in the opening where one little corner called to mind the searching nature of Bach's cello Sarabandes.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

Alban Gerhardt's wonderful articulation and musicianship helped contrast the mood of the Cantos with those separating them, nowhere more strikingly than in the closing, and dazzling, Moto perpetuo, through whose frenzied activity memories of the Canto peep. Gerhardt, who played the entire concert from memory, pulled off a lovely touch of stagecraft here. The Moto perpetuo begins with a very short phrase, followed by an equally short rest, during which he succeeded in removing loose horsehair from his bow. The Bordone featured some very interesting technique and sounds: left hand pizzicato, during bowed open strings. Without hearing a note of Britten or Tippett one might sense a difference of approach in the titles. Tippett's five-movement Piano Sonata no. 4 boasts only permutations of, "medium, slow, fast." Steven Osborne's account of the penultimate 'Fast' was certainly that! However, there was more to the movements thrilling energy than simple velocity. While either hand took the lead with urgently syncopated melody, the opposing hand countered with exhilarating cross-rhythms.

The power invested in this movement's outer sections alone was sufficient to account for the piano's retuning in the interval. Osborne's variety of touch matched nicely the movement's lighter, central two-part invention. The schizophrenic central 'Slow' pitted Bartók-like Bulgarian dance textures against brilliant Messiaen-like clusters. Seeing Osborne in action in a piece like this, it's clear why he is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary repertoire. Moreover, given the sheer density of notes, one has to admire his composure in the heat of battle.

Alban Gerhardt © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Alban Gerhardt
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Having impressed as soloists the musicians came together in the second half where we could hear the strong musical bond they have formed through playing together. This was immediately apparent in the Andante opening of Beethoven's Cello Sonata no. 4 in C major Op.102 no 1. The musicians' relaxed ensemble was the perfect garden path towards the startling A minor Allegro which completes the first of the work's two movements. The minor key movement occasioning the appearance of many dramatic diminished chords, there was much scope for drama, aided by the many sudden stops. The following movement's opening Adagio showcased the duo's natural conversational inclination. Shared feeling for dynamics and phrasing lent this section a bittersweet pathos. When the movement progressed into its Tempo d'Andante section, snappy treatment of the four-note motif on which the entire piece is built, introduced a touch of wit into a challenging programme.

The dialogue sensed in the Beethoven was stated in the opening Dialogo of Britten's Cello Sonata in C major Op.65. The movement's odd timing, almost as though feeling its way in the opening bars, highlighted the duo's rapport. Even in later, more frenzied passages, the many cross-rhythms require great musicianship which might, for lesser players, result in cross-purposes – but certainly not here. The Scherzo - pizzicato featured pizzicato with both hands while Osborne's part alternated delicate high octave passages with more ferocious playing. Following the dark Elegy, during which Gerhardt was required to attach the mute while still bowing an open string, the humour of the Marcia brought energy but not light. The menacing quality of this movement was wonderfully communicated, Gerhardt's glissando harmonics adding a ghostly touch.

Like the programme's opening Britten work, this also ends with a Moto perpetuo and it too has pathos, in the wonderful piano harmonies which Osborne brought out nicely. Soon after, Gerhardt took us to the upper limits of cello pitch, bringing Osborne's dynamic level up with him. The movement climaxes in what would have made for excellent cinematic chase music before coming to an abrupt end. The energy from both players here was infectious. This excellent performance was impressive on its own but all the more when one recalled that these two fine musicians had taken part in a wonderful rendition of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time only 40 hours previously.

*****