Robert Ibell and Catherine McKay – cello and piano: Boulanger and Brahms

Nadia Boulanger: Three Pieces for cello and piano, (1915); Brahms: Cello Sonata No 2 in F major, Op 99

Robert Ibell (cello) and Catherine McKay (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 30 September

The first of Nadia Boulanger’s three pieces is marked modéré. Though it’s the only one of the three in a major key, it is calm, of exquisite peacefulness though written nt eh first year of the first World War. It offered the chance to hear Robert Ibell,outside the orchestral or string quartet clutter, as a cellist able to draw the listener into a sound world filled with delicacy and subtle colours. For the cello part enjoyed most of the melodic character of the piece while the piano, just as engagingly played, decorated the music with a rocking motif and supported the delineation of its graceful shape.

The second piece, ‘Sans vitesse et à l’aise’, had an open air feel, though nothing too lively; Boulanger’s debt to Fauré could be heard in the melody here, elusive, fragile, leaving one seeking their prolongation and perhaps repetition, but French art is distinguished by its reticence and economy of expression and Boulanger was the inheritor of that and its transmitter through her many famous pupils (not all of whom followed all her precepts).

The title of the third piece was just as apt as the others: ‘Vite et nerveusement rythmé’; it was a bit louder and more extrovert, certainly a bit agitated, but it broke off for a meditative phase, and later returned to a quick quasi dance in commontime. The highly attractive and persuasive account by both players, sustained throughout its duration, makes one curious about Boulanger’s other music. It is odd that it is the compositions of her sister Lili, who died very young, which have gained more exposure in recent years.

Brahms’ second cello sonata was probably the main draw-card for this recital; so it was for me in anticipation though, in retrospect, the above experience altered things. In all, this was a highly persuasive, beautifully played performance by both musicians, though I was a little bothered sometimes by the imbalance between cello and piano and felt that the piano lid might well have been down in order to allow the cello its due; it was not such a problem in the emphatic and impetuous gestures.

The second movement, affettuoso, was particularly – well – affecting, shifting between careful pizzicato and dreamy legato, with vibrato that was perfectly pulsed. The rise and fall of dynamics, the long crescendi, in the third movement, building towards dark passionate climaxes, and then subsiding to a divine quietness, was the real Brahms. So was the strong playing of the final Allegro molto.

In two weeks we’ve had recitals by violinist and cello plus piano: look for our review of next Wednesday’s concert by viola and piano (Helen Bevin and Rafaella Garlick-Grice) to complete a set of duos for strings and piano.

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