Richard Harwood, Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 18 January 2005
The number of good, young cellists around is truly remarkable. And many of them are British. Jacqueline du Pré influenced a generation, but now a second generation has emerged.
The number of good, young cellists around is truly remarkable. And many of them are British. Jacqueline du Pré influenced a generation, but now a second generation has emerged. Credit in Britain rests in no small measure with the American cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, who has lived here for some time and has taught many of them. The International Cello Festival, which he set up in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music, is a Mecca for cellists the world over. He has also set up a prize in honour of the great French cellist Pierre Fournier.
Cellists are a generous lot, for it was out of a concert in memory of Fournier, who died in 1986, that funds were raised by the galaxy of star players who took no fee. Over the years, the money has been topped up by similar generosity, which enables a young cellist to appear at the Manchester festival and the Wigmore Hall, and to receive a CD "calling-card" of the Wigmore recital.
Richard Harwood is the latest recipient. That he has an awesome talent is without doubt. I first heard him playing Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations to the great Hungarian cellist Janos Starker in a masterclass at the Manchester festival in 1994. Starker, who has a reputation for eating cellists, said: "Last night, I thought the present was guaranteed. This morning, I know the future is guaranteed." He had been teaching 14-year-old Harwood.
Ten years on, Harwood brought a challenging programme to his Wigmore recital, touching on the widest repertoire. His Beethoven Op 5 No 1 was one of the finest performances I've heard. It's young-style Beethoven, and Harwood perfectly caught the freshness and delicacy of this sonata. Harwood fastidiously followed Beethoven's instructions: it's amazing how doing this is not a sine qua non of performance. And he was most ably supported by his pianist Christoph Berner, who has masses of notes.
Chopin's only cello sonata also writes fulsomely for the piano, and it was impressive that Berner was sensitive to the real probability of drowning Harwood. The finest playing from Harwood came in the slow movement where his finely focused sound was like burnished gold. But both the first and last movements could have been more edgy.
For a solo work, Harwood chose Gabrielli (rather than Bach), playing his Ricercar No 7 as though eavesdropping on himself in a marvellously understated improvisatory manner. But it was in Martinu's 1st Sonata (written for Fournier in 1939) and in the salon music of Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody that Harwood's remediable shortcomings became clear: he needs every opportunity he can get to play publicly, learning to engage with the audience, capturing and captivating it, subtly revealing just how hard it is to be a great cellist. Even a little vulgarity wouldn't go amiss.
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