The Kings Place concert venue is acoustically the best new small-scale hall in London; and the first sounds ever heard there, when it opened back in 2008, came from a solo cello playing Bach as part of an acoustic test.
According to the venue’s founder, Peter Millican, that cello test was proof he’d got things right: the sound was perfect. So it was predictable that the hall’s maverick programming policy, which focuses on year-long themes bearing the title “Unwrapped”, would eventually result in Cello Unwrapped: a vast undertaking that offers no fewer than 43 cellists in 49 concerts, masterclasses and related events throughout 2017, and surveys (exhaustively) the history of cello repertoire – from the instrument’s early days as bass-line support for other performers to its establishment as a star turn in its own right.
Cello Unwrapped began last week with two concerts on the same day that summed up some of the themes destined to unfold across the next 12 months. The leading German cellist Alban Gerhardt was the soloist, supported as required by the young, up-and-come Aurora Orchestra under conductor Nicholas Collon. And this year of cello couldn’t have got off to a more dazzling start, as a single movement from the Britten unaccompanied cello suites – a 20th-century landmark – segued into an early Vivaldi concerto, and then into the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations: each piece delivered by Gerhardt with a motivated strength and sculpted profile.
Gerhardt is in some ways the Daniel Craig of cellists, craggily distinguished in his handsome, ochre-coloured sound. And if this first, orchestral concert was superb, the one that followed, where he held the stage alone, was even better. It was given over to that towering colossus of the unaccompanied cello repertoire, the great wartime sonata that Kodály wrote in 1915. Sprawling, powerful and calling for relentless virtuosity, it’s music you don’t often hear: performers baulk at its demands, and concert halls assume it asks too much of audiences, too. But in the right hands it’s a wonderful experience. And Gerhardt’s were the right hands: mesmerising in their energy and brilliance.
Almost as compelling, though, was his unflustered handling of a small disaster earlier in the evening. During the Tchaikovsky, one of Gerhardt’s strings snapped. The performance stopped and tensions rose. But as established etiquette lays down, a cellist from the orchestra surrendered his own instrument, and things resumed: a manageable crisis of the kind that concert-goers love to archive. But it left me wondering why all my memories of mid-performance broken strings involve the cello. Never violins. Presumably it’s down to physics. Answers gratefully received.
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