The first of the BBC Proms Chamber Music concerts, before a capacity audience at Cadogan Hall saw a pair of French works alongside a Mozart piano concerto performed in its chamber-scaled alternative scoring.
Husband and wife duo, pianist Paul Lewis and cellist Bjørg Lewis began proceedings with an intimate performance of Debussy’s cello sonata. The opening prologue movement was firmly introduced by Paul Lewis at the piano before Bjørg made a wistful entry on the cello. As the movement progressed it was often tender yet melancholy in tenor, with Bjørg’s playing often notable for its richness of tone. Debussy commented that the sonata, dating from 1915, represented an affirmation of French culture during a time of war and that its central idea was built around the character of Pierrot and his anger at the moon. The middle movement serenade ably conveyed this, as much through the tragi-comic sulking facial expressions pulled by Bjørg whilst she played as the commedia dell’arte inferences in Debussy’s writing. The animated finale found the duo produce spirited playing to articulate the music as if with a single voice. The warmth of the audience reception matched the embrace pianist and cellist gave one another after this most successful performance.
The centenary of Henri Dutilleux’ birth is marked at this year’s Proms with a focus on three of his orchestral works in Proms 32-34 (August 8-10). The Vertavo Quartet, of which Bjørg Lewis is the cellist, performed Dutilleux’s only string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1973-6) as a prelude to that celebration. Taking its inspiration from Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, the single movement work lasting around 15 minutes presents seven brief yet unrelated movements which the composer viewed as “isolated fragments without real links”. The Vertavos clearly relished the opportunity to explore the cross-pollinating sound world of harmonies, colours and multifarious on-the-spot turns of tempo which fire off of one another between the four parts. They deployed their individual contributions with a lightness of touch that cast a veil over the seriousness of their endeavour in taking on one of the composer’s most searching chamber works. Whether one was captivated momentarily by the glassy violin tones produced by Øyvor Volle and Annabelle Meare, the incisive warmth of violist Berit Cardas or the grounding calm often provided by Bjørg Lewis’ cello, the work’s swirling figurations barely settled until just before the final repeated chord at the work’s conclusion.
Mozart wrote his piano concerto no. 12 in A Major, K.414, with a view to encouraging as many performances as possible. To that end he scored the orchestration for full scale forces and a parallel version for piano and string quartet. Paul Lewis’s pianism throughout was decidedly clear yet never clinical, in a performance that was stylish and discretely detailed. The opening allegro was appropriately robust, even on this reduced scale, and of adroit tempo. Playing Mozart’s own cadenza, Paul Lewis assumed the spotlight momentarily with pianism of distinction. The middle movement Andante was consciously written in the style of Johann Christian ,using a theme from an opera overture as the basis for its material. The Vertavos and Paul Lewis evoked the atmosphere with ease to showcase the marriage of Mozart and Bach to good effect. The closing Rondo was at once impetuous and genial, with Paul Lewis and the Vertavos producing playing that was nuanced and assured in equal measure.