The memory of Pierre Fournier is one not many would dispute as anything but an inspiration to even the most well-established cellists on the scene today: the highly acclaimed cellist was, among other things, known for his supreme tone quality and musicality; he sadly passed away in 1986. But following his death, his legacy most definitely continued, inspiring both those already well-integrated into the music scene and those fledgling young artists making their first tentative steps onto the concert career ladder. This has, in recent years, been further cemented by the Pierre Fournier Award, a (now) international competition for young cellists with promise and talent. The first award was given in 1988, the prize being a recital in Wigmore Hall alongside various promotional recordings and materials and the chance to play with world-class orchestras.

Mikhail Nemtsov © Bob Jones
Mikhail Nemtsov
© Bob Jones

The 2011 winner was Mikhail Nemtsov, who is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in performance at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), performing in the competition alongside his pianist sister, Elena Nemtsova, a previous Junior Fellow at RNCM herself. But to assume that just because the duo is fairly fresh from college that their interpretations would lack the depth and insight of an older duo would be sadly mistaken, and the maturity of their performances generally belied their years in this ‘prize’ of a Wigmore Hall recital.

Opening the programme with the most obscure item, ROAI II, could have been a risk, but it most definitely paid off. The second in a set of five pieces by the Greek composer Minas Borboudakis, the piece had its Purcell Room première by none other than this duo themselves in 2011. As a result, they were incredibly comfortable in their performance in a way that only comes with knowing a piece intimately. But the performance was never unexciting; from the first gesture it was committed and daring, the dissonant double stops growling furiously from the cello. The unison passages were poised and expertly placed, the glissandi eased up and down with a vocal expressiveness.

The Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor, a notoriously different sonata for cellist and pianist alike, was then carried off with technical ease and flair. There were occasions where the music could have benefited from a little more shaping and expansiveness (in particular in the Allegro non troppo), and the more fiery passages were a little lacking in direction at times, but the overall interpretation had a clear sense of vibrancy and Shostakovich’s signature sarcasm shone through in the duo’s playing.

Next, Mikhail took to the stage alone for Ligeti’s Sonata for solo cello, a curious two-movement sonata whose movements were composed in 1948 and 1953 respectively; interestingly, the piece was not performed in public until 1983 due to political restrictions on modernist music. The Dialogo’s opening motif was handled with richness and warmth, and the extended techniques (glissandi, pizzicato etc.) became an integral musical device as opposed to just ‘special effects’ in Nemtsov’s hands. The Capriccio began with a cheeky flurry of notes, and the thin line between humour and poignancy was balanced to a fine art.

Finally, the programme ended with the Franck Cello Sonata in A major. Originally a sonata for violin and piano, it was transcribed by Franck himself for cello and piano, and the piece certainly seems to have moulded itself to the melodic lilt of the cello without any obvious signs of being bandied from one instrument to another. As with the Shostakovich, the music could have been allowed a little more room to breathe at times, but the third and fourth movements were particularly enjoyable, the beautifully graceful final movement a sweet end to a work (and a programme) of such epic proportions and technical demands.

For an encore, the duo returned to play the third movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata, Op. 65. The harmonic simplicity allowed Nemtsov’s rich tone a chance to fully blossom and Nemtsova’s poised yet sensitive playing provided a wonderful support, the two parts both feeding off each other and yet soaring independently, the epitome of true musical siblings.