Standing in at short notice for a scheduled all-Beethoven program from Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, Philip Higham and Susan Tomes took on not only Beethoven but Josef Suk, Janáček, Debussy and Nadia Boulanger without missing a beat, no page turner allowed, and no intermission.

Susan Tomes and Philip Higham © Wigmore Hall
Susan Tomes and Philip Higham
© Wigmore Hall

They began with the Variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" from 1801 when Beethoven had reached his charming galant best while beginning to move on to more personal concerns, and the absolutely gorgeous sound of Higham's Carlo Giuseppe Testore, and his range of vibrato from white to wide, is what Beethoven must have intended. Susan Tomes matched and complemented Higham with her elegant, silvery tone, relishing the opening of the florid slow variation as if it were never going to end, after which the two danced and romped delightfully through the last variation.

Playing for his first live audience in over six months, the principal cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra then played Suk's two charming pieces Ballade and Serenade, with Brahmsian richness at times, with naive lyrical exuberance at others. Janáček's darker Pohádka appropriately felt driven by its impulsive intensity of personal expression, Higham finding the sweetness before turning bitter, Tomes shining light graciously at the end, cushioning the pain.

Tomes and Higham gave the Debussy sonata a splendid performance, the emotional wash of colors laid on subtly but with burnished tones. Tomes could not match her partner's tremendous dynamic range with the bow or pizzicato, but did the next best thing by being extraordinarily tuned in to the cello's resonant field, creating wonderful spaces in which their personal styles and sounds collaborated to find the music's deeply sad heart and poetry.

In Beethoven's fourth and most thorny cello sonata, the two players navigated according to their character, both as cello and piano, and Higham and Tomes. The serene opening Andante led abruptly as it should into an Allegro vivace that was not headlong but precipitous enough to make the perilous nature of the cello's technical challenges apparent. When conquered, as Higham did unfailingly, both music and cellist soared to the heights which Beethoven discovered and scaled, bringing continuity and a certain sense of sanity to the heavy duty deconstructing. The major key transformation leading from the Adagio into the Tempo d'andante sounded a bit contrived and the concluding Allegro vivace sounded like hard work but Higham and Tomes bravely carried on to the finish with fierce determination.

As an encore Higham repeated the second of Nadia Boulanger's Three Pieces, a canon called Sans vitesse et à l'aise, with the comment and a smile, “I always like to hear canons twice”.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

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