Alban Gerhardt, cello; Steven Osborne, piano: Works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms, Playhouse, November 5, 2017.


One always speculates on what special conditions make for a great performance on concert night. Is it the preparation and full absorption of the pieces to be played? Is it the synergy between the artists at that moment? Is it the electricity in the audience? In this case, esteemed pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Alban Gerhardt performed after great difficulties in travel, arriving from different directions with major delays and little sleep – and in Osborne’s case, little concert dress and only running shoes. Yet they gave one of the most communicative recitals we have seen in a long time. Part of the spontaneity may have come from the fact that the artists were too tired to hide anything or have any concert nerves, so they interacted with each other and with the audience in a totally natural way. A stimulating ingredient was the programme itself: three cello sonatas plus a major solo work each. Certainly a forbidding challenge for two tired artists! Yet they conquered it all. One might think of stronger and more demonstrative ways of playing Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy Cello Sonatas, but seldom ones as finely-detailed, committed and ‘honest’ as those given here. This was rare music making, fully at the service of the composers, perceptive, individual, and transparent – with not a hint of the artists’ intrusion.

Alban Gerhardt led off the solo part of the concert with a finely-knit performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2. The cellist has beautifully clean registration and tonal resilience, which allows him to mine detail without ever having to add extra luster or dramatic point to his articulation. This approach might appear more refined and understated than some, yet it has beguiling strength of purpose and is always based on a discerning distillation of the score. What impressed from the opening Prelude was the sense of coherence, everything finely detailed and dynamically-terraced, yet embodying an underlying flow. The faster dances were on the surface very taut with an angular feel, yet revealed a myriad of attentive nuances. The Sarabande was likely the highlight, cultivating sparser, more intimate textures, and finding genuine nobility amidst the concentrated musing. If a comparison is needed, I was sometimes reminded of Heinrich Schiff’s astute traversals in terms of scale and motion. Gerhardt will record the complete set of six suites for Hyperion next year.

It was the sense of coherence that marked Steven Osborne’s Beethoven Sonata Op. 109 as well. This was simply a lovely performance that moved from beginning to end with enviable economy, feeling and perceptive detail. The pianist performed the three prior Beethoven sonatas here last time (review) and, as was amply revealed then, he fosters a strong dichotomy between Beethoven’s private and public world in the late sonatas: the composer’s intimate world is often abruptly punctuated by hammered chords which bring him back to reality. If Osborne’s penetration of the complexity of Beethoven’s world may have come off as slightly cerebral before, this performance was notably freer and more lyrical, with a lovely suspended dreaminess to much of it. Of course, this sonata is more lyrical than its predecessors – and the artist’s absence of sleep may not have hurt either. But what beauty and sensuality Osborne coaxed from the top of his instrument (sometime almost Debussy-like), and what fluidity and tenderness imbued the lyrical outpouring. There was a stream of consciousness feel to it all, endless motion and consuming feeling pushing on indefinitely, surviving the wake-up calls of stark reality, and finally coming home to rest after the scaling the beautifully-appointed counterpoint at the close.

It is not surprising that putting these artists together as a duo yielded special results.  Time and again, one noted their acute perception of the score and exactness of their execution. Theirs is an intimate and finely-detailed way, developed with tight synergy. It is distinctive as it seemingly reverses the usual role of the cellist as the provider of ardour and colour and the piano as the custodian of continuity and line. Here Gerhardt’s resiliently-firm, attentive lines often provide the continuity while Osborne punctuates the route with wider dynamics and stronger changes in texture.


The performances of all three cello sonatas had enviable concentration, understated in degree but each distilling a myriad of feeling without any excess romantic adornment. Their Beethoven Op. 102, No. 2 was just as economical as it should be, the opening Allegro and finale full of rhythmic cogency and pristine detailing, with perceptively-drawn lines from Gerhardt and plenty of imaginative touches from Osborne. The Adagio was striking in the way it highlighted the strangeness of Beethoven’s forlorn, musing world and its subtle ebb-and-flow. If one felt that the artists let the composer fully ‘speak’ in this traversal, then similar feelings of purity came out in the vastly-different Debussy Cello Sonata too. While the work contains striking dynamic gyrations, it was the attention payed to the delicate shadings and pianissimo markings that really stood out. This playing was remarkably certain in direction and opened out a fine mix of contemplative space and idiomatic energy.

The Brahms E minor Cello Sonata was the big work on the programme though, in this traversal, it did not aim to be as weighty and demonstrative as it sometimes is. Steven Osborne marked the Allegro’s structural junctures with fine weight and flourish, but this was essentially a ruminative performance that took one into autumnal sadness, becoming more private and quiet as things progressed, and ending with brusque outburst of consternation. The finely-honed Allegretto continued to eschew romantic padding, setting up a very tough and rugged finale, executed with sterling discipline and transparency. One had to admire the uncommon thoughtfulness of this performance, but I admit that the intensity may have been a little unremitting in the longer outer movements. It is not that the interpretation needed more big-boned weight and gesture; it just needed a hint of relaxation and lyrical caprice to mix with Brahms’ concentrated textures. Gerhardt’s seriousness of purpose and certainty of line are wonderful virtues, but, as a passing observation, the cellist did not seem to moderate his intensity level very much: he was as intense when playing forte lines as when playing a pianissimo passage, and he did not seem to lighten his bowing or temperature very much in the middle of phrases. Perhaps a slight temperamental adjustment would make a difference here.

In any case, one supposed that the artists might just lie down on the stage after this grueling concert and the adversity leading up to it. But not so fast: for an encore, a slice of gentle Schumann was invoked (apparently the artists needed a ‘shoe-man’ to find the pianist his missing footwear) and then both artists sat down at the piano and played one of the most beguiling and roughshod performances of a Dvorak Slavonic Dance I have ever heard. There have been few concerts in the Vancouver Recital Society’s 37-year history that offered more to write home about.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017