A recital at the Wigmore Hall is a big deal. To walk onto the stage is to follow in the footsteps of nearly all the great soloists and chamber musicians of the twentieth century, from Saint-Saëns to Vengerov, via Prokofiev and almost anyone else you can think of. A big deal indeed. But not for cellist Philip Higham, who appeared on that famous stage yesterday as part of the Young Concert Artists’ Trust lunchtime series accompanied by pianist Nicola Eimer. No stranger to the Wigmore Hall, nor to many other prestigious recital venues throughout Britain and Europe, Higham’s elegant and yet extrovertly musical playing made the young performer sound like an old pro.

© Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann (Dan Hannen)
© Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann (Dan Hannen)

As the first ever British winner of the International Bach Competition (another very big deal), it was fitting that the programme began with a Bach sonata. Not one of the famous solo ones, however, but the first sonata for viola da gamba and clavier. The substitution of the four-stringed cello for the five-stringed viola da gamba affects only a few chords within the piece, however replacing the delicate clavier with a powerful Steinway concert grand is another matter. Despite Eimer’s light playing, the sonorous sound of the piano threatened to overpower the solo part. The different interpretation of cellist and pianist represented the two schools of current performances of Bach and other Baroque composers. Eimer’s light, rhythmic playing was very much in keeping with historically informed performance, and whilst Higham’s playing incorporated many elements of this, for example swells on long notes and unhurried dance movements, his was a more Romantic conception of the piece. Both interpretations were equally convincing and well-executed; however a more cohesive approach would have been pleasing.

Second in the programme was Janacek’s Pohádka (Fairy tale), a three movement piece which aims to evoke the drama and atmosphere of a Russian legend, also set by Stravinsky in his ballet The Firebird. Creating a wide variety of atmospheres is a great challenge; however it was no trial for Higham’s hugely expressive playing. In this piece Higham and Eimer agreed on the moods they were representing to the extent that the music seemed to flow from one mind, their body language and facial expressions often mirroring each other as they strove to put across the power and the pathos of the Janacek’s music. The duo’s constant consideration of tempo and mood breathed life into the tale of the evil magician and the good Prince.

The final piece was Brahms’ Sonata no.1 in E minor, a work of almost symphonic length with a fiendishly difficult piano part. Higham and Eimer’s strong partnership was again in evidence, both in terms of musical ideas and ensemble. Despite his dazzling technique and fantastically pure sound, perhaps Higham’s greatest strength is his ability to seem entirely detached and relaxed whilst providing more musical interest than almost all more obviously involved performances. His flawless technique makes this cerebral approach possible, giving the impression that he is free from the demands of his instrument: Higham appears to be philosophising from an armchair whilst delivering a stunning performance. Having performed the exhausting Brahms the duo returned to perform Schumann’s Fantasiestücke no.2 as an encore, a piece of simple beauty which cut through the complexity of the Brahms Sonata like sorbet. Far from being fatigued, Higham gave the impression he could go on all day; I suspect a great many in the audience would have stayed to listen. Fortunately for them, Philip Higham is a big deal: there will be plenty more opportunities to hear this exceptional musician.