Coffee Concert 22nd January 2023 – Philip Higham – Strings Attached Review by Michael Wilkinson


This year’s programme has been characterised by splendid concerts, and this solo recital stood out even by these extraordinary standards, in a series of gripping performances of very different works.

Some recitals are memorable for their virtuosity, with the player intent on impressing by technique and ability. Philip Higham eschews this approach, with a focus entirely at the service of the music. His soft Edinburgh voice, introducing the works, was a sign of the dignified, thoughtful approach of his playing. Even in the most demanding passages, technical ability – extraordinary and subtle – is subordinate to the shape of the music, with particular attention to the melodic line. A controlled expansiveness in expression brought deeply satisfying outcomes, with nothing pulled out of shape to impress the gallery.

The first half was dominated by a gloriously intense performance of Bach’s Suite No.2 in D minor (BWV1008). In all three of the baroque works in the first half, Higham played the cello (made by Carlo Giuseppe Testore in 1697, with a modernised neck and bridge) with his favoured gut strings, no endpoint and a baroque bow. Interestingly, in his outstanding – my personal favourite of all recordings – Delphian recording of the complete suites(DELPHIAN DCD34150) made in 2015, he uses a transitional bow.

And the Bach was remarkable in its capturing of the composer’s long lines and the sense of their origins in dance. On the one hand, there was no lack of gaiety, yet considered phrasing made profundities no less evident. It was a privilege to be present.

Before the Bach, it was interesting to hear two brief capricci (2 and 4) by Joseph-Marie dall’Abaco (1710-1805), from the 1770’s. I confess I had not heard them before, though his 11 Capricci have been recorded by Erin Ellis on Albany Records, and Charlie Rasmussen on Centaur. No 2 is deceptively simple, its overall mood contemplative, while the quicker No.4 has depths brought elegantly out by Higham’s restraint.

Before the interval, three Ricercari (of seven) by Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690 – there is a question about whether he was born on 15th April 1651 or 19th October 1659) provided interesting challenges for both player and audience. Gabrielli was one of the first virtuoso cellists and a pioneer composer for the instrument. The pieces chosen (No.1 in G minor. No.3 in D major, No.2 in A minor – in that order) each have an exploratory, even experimental, character, with fleeting shifts in emotional intensity. No.2, the longest of the three pieces, was perhaps the most powerful.

After the interval, with bow changed and endpoint employed, the exploratory questing theme returned in Berio’s Le mots sont allés … The words are gone, from 1979. The piece was one of 12 commissioned by Rostropovich to mark the 70th birthday of the Swiss businessman (reputed in his lifetime to be the third richest man in the world), conductor, patron and musicologist, Paul Sacher (1906-1999). Despite lasting only four minutes, the work has intensity and depth in its swift changes of technical demands – all captured with aplomb in this performance.

Max Reger’s name is not normally one associated with uncertainty or trepidation. His style, influenced by his work as an organist as well as his passion for Brahms, can sometimes seem heavy, rather academic, and for some, a bit forbidding. His cello suites, while carefully organised, belie his reputation. They are quite frequently recorded but not often heard live, so it was good to have this opportunity. This three-movement Suite No.3 in A minor, from 1915, the year before Reger’s early death, certainly draws on the tradition of Bach, but has a distinctive voice of its own. The prelude (Bach again) has a confidence and directness of statement; the charming scherzo and trio is, especially in the trio, romantically expressive, and the final andante with its five variations, has its own charms. Yet again, the restrained nobility of the performance brought immense rewards to both music and listener.

The concert was a truly fitting tribute to my predecessor as reviewer, Andrew Polmear, so much missed. He was, as well as someone who gave so much to music in the city in so many ways, a kindly, modest man, much missed. As cellist and scholar, he would have delighted in this concert. May he rest in peace.