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The curtains are open and the stage, lit and ready, containing just a solitary black piano stool. An oddity in any other situation. Apiece of furniture left behind? Forlorn-looking? Or dignified? Is a piano about to join it?
Or have we come on the wrong day? Not a concert at all but a play by Gogol or Samuel Beckett? A modern political or spy drama? Or a stand-up comedian, gloomily sitting down?
Except that the stool evidently means to deliver something businesslike. It’s set squarely centre-stage, facing the auditorium. The Coffee Concert audience drifting in are accustomed to cellists commandeering the most sumptuous seating, and their string quartet colleagues making do with regulation chairs. The audience know that only a cello was performing and recognise the link.
Starkly, though, there is no music stand. Therefore the cellist knows all his lines and is challenging his audience to appreciate his absorbing lone task. Gradually the weight of this sight becomes heavily portentous.
Solo concerts of Bach on cello, violin or solo keyboard (eg. Yo Yo Ma, Alina Ibragimova or Andras Schiff) are the momentous occasions, whether a Royal Albert Hall prom or a Wigmore Hall recital. But they tread rarely and gingerly in Brighton Coffee Concerts history.
Organisers The Dome and Strings Attached Society risked a solo violin Coffee Concert quite a few years back, and the popular, respected Rachel Podger repaid their boldness. But that wasn’t a double green light. Finally, this time, came Philip Higham. Not a household name, except to fans of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra where he leads the cellos, and Wigmore Hall mailing list subscribers who notice his London recitals.
How far short of the recent average crowd of around 220 would this Coffee Concert fall, the promoters wondered? Advance ticket sales were 160. Promising. The doors actually closed for Higham to take the stage with exactly 200 people inside the ACCA. Quite a result, but knowing the appetite and enquiring nature of this audience, not a shock.
“He looks like a David Tennant stunt double,” observed Coffee Concerts veteran, Graham, sitting next to me. Higham is also a Scot and for a second I imagined an army of bearded hundreds of Higham lookalikes tearing towards me baying for English blood. But from Higham’s bow and left-hand fingers, Bach’s famous G major Suite Prelude flowed towards me, speaking of peace and creativity.
Higham/Tennant was in a blue-grey suit, with cuflinked, white open-necked shirt – the contemporary sartorial halfway house – with the clashing colour of light tan shoes, standardly anarchical since the English 2003 Rugby World Cup team paraded the trophy their grey designer suits and footwear. Higham’s shoes matched the brightest colour on stage, the pale orange tan of his cello. Audience eyes were drawn to them equally and their movement or stasis became part of the performing dynamic he transmitted.
Higham’s tempi were generally brisker than the traditional Bach Suites pace favoured by classic cellists through the 1970s-90s – which fueled debate among much of the audience thus brought-up. But readers of the free programme notes were superbly prepared by Andrew Polmear, a chamber cellist himself, whose Coffee Concert reviews appear on the Strings Attached website.
Higham gave us energy and movement, which interestingly joined up Bach’s sometimes deliberately fragmented secondary musical lines. There was not the customary older presentation of the music’s (what I call) mathematical structure in Bach on graph paper, upon which those older cellists tended to enjoy laying out before the listener.
Maybe this stems from Higham’s modern chamber orchestra background practice of greater speediness. It wasn’t until the last minute of the concert itself that suddenly I heard Higham dwell on a note and give it vibrato, that I realised it had been a morning of restless and searching melodic and harmonic movement, and that the cello was saddled with doing it all, with no accompaniment above which to pause and savour something to sing.
Higham played no encore but spoke to us once, to introduce and explain his choosing of some Baroque spaghetti Bolognese to bring us into the second half. From Bologna, Bach forerunner Domenico Gabrielli, heaped on Higham his own cello virtuosity in two of his Ricercare (‘Researches’).
It was contrasting but opportunistic programming because Bach a generation later used Domenico’s altered viola da Gamba-like string tuning with G on bottom and top, which, Higham hinted, darkens the resonance and sonority, and intensifies the moods in the key for Bach’s Suite No 5, which he played next and finally.
That key is C minor – familiar territory for the serious utterances we know in Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert – and Higham showed us how this key similarly attracted Bach, and how practically the string tuning opens up a virtuosic showcase for the cello.
It was Bach who brought in this audience and who sent them away satisfied by a concert inhabiting a rarified sphere. And also – which to many will be compelling – a physical one. Its companions absent, peeled away, one instrument is left on its own. And one player. There is a feeling of complete freedom shared with the player, amid which, in all their detail, are the bare sounds of flesh and bone on a cello’s wood and metal – and of its player . . . breathing.