An atmosphere of anticipation grew as the audience streamed into Haddington’s 1748 Town House; this was going to be a sell out. Cellist Philip Higham and pianist Alasdair Beatson’s programme was bookended by Beethoven, beginning with his 1801 Variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (For men who feel love). The opening bars announced an essential truth of the concert: it was not cello accompanied by piano. Beatson’s elegant statement of Mozart’s theme (originally sung by Die Zauberflöte characters Pamina and Papageno) was accompanied by Higham’s cello before he himself took the melodic reins, high in the cello’s range. This baton-passing approach was sustained through the following seven variations. Their seamless progress could be tracked by noting the surprising interrupted cadence which ends the penultimate phrase of the aria and consequently each variation. This moment, easily laboured in less capable hands, was delivered with winning lightness.

Philip Higham © William Knight
Philip Higham
© William Knight

The centrally placed fourth variation stood out in several ways: as the sole minor movement; as our first hearing of the cello’s lower register; for its loosening of the 6/8 metre’s purposeful propulsion. In the final, most playful, and most Mozartian variation we could hear just how well this duo understood a relatively young Beethoven’s admiration for the composer with whom he had hoped to study.

Slightly later Beethoven closed the programme; his 1808 Cello Sonata No. 3. This fine duo’s account allowed us to hear the boundary-pushing compositional development which seven years had witnessed. This was most notable in the burlesquely syncopated Scherzo: Allegro molto, here played with feverish energy. A short and serenely rendered Adagio cantabile preceded the closing Allegro vivace, whose virtuosity brought out the fire in these fine players. Haddington Concert Society’s mighty Bösendorfer threatened to overshadow the cello in the loudest moments. However, this minor reservation was soon incinerated in the heat of the moment.

Fauré’s 1921 Cello Sonata no. 2 in G minor provided the central pillar in this five-piece programme. Indeed, its own centre was the sonata’s origin, having previously served as the Chant Funéraire commissioned to commemorate the centenary of Napoleon’s death. The slow movement’s unanimity of mood provided dramatic contrast to the fiercely independent cello and piano parts in the energetically exercised opening Allegro. This movement, less immediately identifiable as Fauré, was delivered with gripping urgency. The toccata-like closing Allegro vivo featured breathtaking virtuoso piano playing.

Janáček’s 1910 Pohádka for Cello and Piano was new to me and instantly likeable. Three unnamed movements programmatically recount the fairytale of Ivan, son of Czar Berendy’s thwarting of the evil Kashchey. The opening dialogue was intriguing. The sustained upper notes of Beatson’s piano arpeggios formed a lyrically communicated melody. These phrases were interrupted by Higham’s pizzicato cello which, thanks to upward glissando notes, sounded very much like a jazz double bass in high-register improvisation. The charming central movement featured animated motifs in close canon. These passages alternated with a beautifully played cello melody which, through fine pacing and dynamic control, became quite impassioned. Higham’s stratospherically high playing was thrilling. A joyous, Lydian mode finale, sounding more obviously Central European than its predecessors, was played with infectious joy.

Stunning as the virtuosity of both players was, the musical highlight, for me, was Schumann’s Three Romances of 1849. Written for oboe and piano, violin, clarinet or cello can replace the oboe. The rhapsodic nature of the music was such that the duo’s shared vision of the work shone through much more than in the programme’s more metered moments. Struck by how Beatson’s attentive watching of Higham’s arm movements compensated for the impossibility of eye contact, it seemed clearer that phrasing and ensemble were here guided by listening and confidence in a shared interpretation. The opening Romance, marked Nicht schnell (Not quickly), features a lovely closing section whose beautiful harmonies were tenderly shaped. Throughout all three movements I was struck by the unlikely phenomenon of the percussive piano matching the lyricism of the sustaining cello. Pre-concert buzz and enthusiastic endorsements during the interval were matched at the concert’s conclusion. Sustained applause and the sound of winter footwear on wooden floorboards surely left this excellent duo in no doubt that they had made quite an impression. Their decision not to include an encore was, in my view, perfectly judged; sometimes a programme is so finely shaped and executed that supplements simply subtract.