Unleashed from the shackles of academia – apologies to St John’s College Cambridge – Laura van der Heijden has launched herself into a hectic performing schedule. From performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in Russia, van der Heijden touched down in Sheffield a few days later; Music in the Round in the Upper Chapel being rather more intimate than Ekaterinburg’s huge concert hall.

Laura van der Heijden © Chris Gloag
Laura van der Heijden
© Chris Gloag

There may have been a few signs of tiredness at the start of Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata no.1 in G major, a hint of awry intonation for example, but she soon got into her stride with a dashing Allegro. Her sweet tone shone in the almost minimalist Andante, as did that of her pianist, Tom Poster. But there is a problem with chamber ensembles using a piano in Baroque music – the power of a huge Steinway grand cannot be hidden. The phrasing was beautiful again in the final Bourrée, but whether Bach intended the keyboard to be on equal terms with the cello is debatable.

These minor problems were vigorously cast aside in Britten’s Cello Sonata. Van der Heijden spoke of her sympathy with the range of emotions in the work; the first movement posed unanswerable questions, she said, then responded with outbursts of frustration. Piano and cello were balanced here in the chaos of emotions and technical challenges were effortlessly overcome. Likewise in the difficult guitar-like pizzicato chords of the Scherzo. Balance and clarity were again on show in the huge range of dynamics of the third movement which died away into high harmonics beautifully. The Marcia which followed was nicely sarcastic, and the final irregularly spaced moto perpetuo gave Poster a chance to be a showman too.

Poster pointed out that all the composers featured had names beginning with B and next up was Nadia Boulanger. She composed very infrequently after the tragic death of her younger sister in 1918, but her Three Pieces for Cello and Piano show us what might have been. They may be short, but they once again gave van der Heijden the chance to charm with her intoxicating sweetness of tone.

In Brahms’ Cello Sonata no. 1 in E minor, both performers and audience were carried away by the composer’s almost unrivalled combination of tunefulness, structural sophistication and powerful emotions, one slight imperfection being the re-emergence of the piano’s dominance, particularly in the finale. This resulted in some lack of clarity, but the overall effect was still overwhelming, and the work provided a triumphant conclusion to the evening.

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