ABERDEEN CHAMBER MUSIC CONCERTS

THE SANCTUARY, QUEEN’S CROSS CHURCH

Monday 13th September 2021

SUSAN TOMES: Piano

PHILIP HIGHAM: Cello

BEETHOVEN: SONATA No.4 in C op.102, No.1

LEOŠ JANÁČEK: POHÁDKA (Tale)

SCHUBERT: ARPEGGIONE SONATA IN a minor, D821   

Concert sponsored by CHAMBER MUSIC SCOTLAND through funding provided by CREATIVE SCOTLAND

Monday’s concert in Queen’s Cross Church was presented in two identical sessions, one at 3pm and the other at 6pm. This was to fit in with current Covid regulations relating to the numbers of people allowed to attend. Both were well attended by very enthusiastic audiences and the performers said that they were so happy to be able to perform in front of live audiences once again. This concert had been originally intended for March 2020 but because of Covid, it had to be postponed.

This was the first of eight forthcoming events in the new season 2021/2022 for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. Pianist Susan Tomes as well as being a top piano recitalist and chamber music performer gives master-classes, serves on competition juries throughout Europe and gives lecture recitals. She gave one such lecture recital for ACMC in Queen’s Cross in 2017. Philip Higham currently Principal cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and is also much in demand as a chamber soloist. He last played for ACMC in the Cowdray Hall in 2011. It was a delight to welcome both performers, this time playing together, back in Aberdeen.

Both concerts opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No.4 op.102. The cello began leading into a beautifully gentle Andante. This led into a fiery and intensely played Allegro vivace with the cellist powering his whole body vigorously into his deeply felt accord with the cello and with Beethoven’s music. The contrast between the gentle Andante and the fiery Allegro demonstrated the perfect relationship between pianist and cellist. Susan Tomes responded perfectly on the piano to the extreme changes of mood in the cello part. Actually, they sat with their backs to one another but it was as if their minds were melded together in the music. This was sort of thing you find more regularly between jazz performers.

In the following Adagio, low cello was borne aloft by higher notes on the piano, then as melody came to the fore in an almost romantic way, the response between cello and piano was really impressive. The performers went into the final Allegro vivace in a splendidly teasing way and with the return of more fiery music this teasing feeling was maintained. Possibly Beethoven was just about managing a smile here?

It was in his previous concert for ACMC in 2011 that Philip Higham, on that occasion with Simon Lane on piano, gave us our previous performance of Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka. From Czech it translates simply as ‘tale’ but many people call it a fairy tale. In her helpful introductory words, Susan Tomes told us that the music does not tell the story that inspired the music in any kind of detail, rather it captures the atmosphere surrounding the story. Like several of Dvořák’s imaginative pieces like The Water Goblin or The Noonday Witch it conjures up feelings associated with mysterious woodlands and in the final Allegro, possibly a village dance or celebration. As Susan Tomes said, you can sense some of the music from Janáček’s orchestral opera scores. I felt I heard exactly that from the piano in the Con moto of the middle movement.

In the opening movement, the cello has extensive passages of pizzicato playing and Philip Higham made these notes sing out splendidly. The cello then had a strong melodic section matched precisely by the piano. The second movement adagio was introduced by light buoyant playing before, with romantic melodic writing from Janáček, we enjoyed further wonderfully intense playing by the cello.

The concluding Allegro had a folksy feeling to it. As I said, possibly a village dance or a celebration of the happy ending of the tale.

The final piece in the performance was certainly the most delicious. It was Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. Philip Higham explained that the arpeggione is a now virtually ‘extinct’ instrument that was a cross between a cello and a guitar. It had six strings and frets. It was also tuned like a guitar. You can see pictures of at least one on the net. Professor Peter Yates of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles has one and plays it. I discover that Schubert’s piece exists in arrangements for double bass, flute, euphonium and clarinet with the piano part substituted by guitar or harp. Not surprising, because it is a really great piece. Other than for cello it is often performed on viola, by Pinchas Zukerman for example.

Philip Higham told us that it was a work that really belongs to the cello and on Monday in Queen’s Cross he went on to prove that it was absolutely true.

All three movements were marvellous for both melody and rhythm. Schubert the composer of songs shone through in so much of the music and Philip Higham certainly made his cello sing out on Monday in both performances. The work ends for the cello with a guitar-like strum across the strings and there were several of these. In the Allegretto the cello treated us to an unending sweep of melody while Susan Tomes gave us a piano performance of pure elegance. It was as if the cello were a voice and Susan was like one of the great accompanists, Gerald Moore perhaps?

The second audience was particularly appreciative of Monday’s performance. They kept calling the performers back for more applause and they were rewarded with a special short encore. It was the second of Trois Pièces for piano and cello by Nadia Boulanger. 

I think the performers were particularly happy with today’s performance. We certainly were!      

Susan Tomes & Philip Higham – 13th September 2021: Review

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