It was clear from the first notes that Xavier Phillips played tuning up: the timbre he gets from his 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello is exceptional, with tautness of attack, harmonic richness and control of shape. His partner in this all-Beethoven programme, François-Frédéric Guy, is also notable for the pure sound quality that he achieves, and Hall One of King’s Place provided the perfect acoustic for this style of playing: crystal clarity of every note combined a generous helping of added warmth.

Xavier Phillips © Musicaglotz
Xavier Phillips
© Musicaglotz

Listening to Guy’s playing, I realised that I was hearing each individual note, regardless of how thick the texture or intricate the ornamentation: in spite of apparently normal tempi, there seemed seemed to be more space than usual around each note. The same was true of Xavier Phillips, in a way that was especially remarkable in the earliest work on the programme (but played last, after the interval), the Cello Sonata no. 3 in A major, Op.69. I noted a particular arpeggio that starts in the low register and then moves swiftly up the strings until it ends in a florid ornament: each note was distinct, with its own clearly discernible shape, however short its overall duration.

Listening to this sonata was a truly joyful experience: delicacy and vigour alternated, returning themes came back like old friends, the solo cello passages allowed us to revel in the lusciousness of the timbre, pizzicato was dispatched with humour, sforzando passages were delivered with intensity without ever spilling over into violence. The scherzo was bewitching, as if we were being led by the nose through uncharted paths.

François-Frédéric Guy © Caroline Dourte
François-Frédéric Guy
© Caroline Dourte

It had taken most of the first half of the concert – the two Op.102 sonatas, nos. 4 and 5 – for me to get myself attuned to Phillips and Guy’s playing style. I’m used to hearing Beethoven played in a considerably more forceful and Sturm und Drang way than was on offer this evening: more fire, more violence, more dynamic contrast. But here was a different Beethoven: a composer of the utmost refinement, with performers steering clear of any romantic overload, focused on paying the utmost respect to the craft in the composer’s creation of every phrase. For most of the Sonata no. 4, I didn’t quite get the point: everything was very elegant, the sound was beautiful, but the two musicians did not seem to truly spark off each other. But as Sonata no. 5 progressed, I became more and more involved. I took note of an exquisite soft, insistent passage immediately preceding the coda of the first movement, and the long Adagio second – marked as “with sentiments of affection” – didn’t grab me by the throat: rather, it guided me into a beautiful place for contemplation.

The evening was concluded by a generous encore: Beethoven's Seven variations on “Bei Männern” from Die Zauberflöte – a lighter weight piece than the sonatas, perhaps, but still a substantial piece of music as, with each variation, Beethoven strays ever further from Mozart's melody while keeping the original firmly anchored in your head.

Guy is a Beethoven specialist, and when discussing his playing with us in a recent interview [in French], he was unequivocal about his intentions: to be as faithful to the composer’s intentions as he can achieve. Since Beethoven was perpetually dissatisfied with the pianos of his time, this does mean using some of characteristics that a modern Steinway can achieve, but Guy deliberately eschews extreme dynamics which he feels would have been beyond Beethoven’s conception. By the end of the evening, I had been completely won over by this thoughtful approach and the sheer beauty of sound achieved.

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