Classical review: Williams/Brendel/Fellner | Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham

Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham

In 2006, Harrison Birtwistle wrote a short piece for cello and piano, a song without words, to mark Alfred Brendel's 75th birthday. The pianist's son Adrian and former Brendel pupil Till Fellner played it, and the following year Birtwistle wrote another piece for the duo, this time a set of variations. Now, he has extended the set again, but in a characteristically unexpected direction. Together with the baritone Roderick Williams, Brendel and Fellner gave the first performance of Bogenstrich Bow-stroke in Austria in May, and, to mark Birtwistle's own 75th birthday next week, they included its UK premiere in their Cheltenham festival recital.

The sequence has become a substantial 25-minute work, and is as touchingly personal as anything he has written. A third piece is added to the existing movements, and Birtwistle frames all three with two settings for baritone of a Rilke poem, Liebeslied (Love Song), the first accompanied by piano like a conventional lied, the second by cello. Despite the piecemeal way the final cycle has emerged, its trajectory is diamond-clear, with the cello taking over the voice's role in the first of the instrumental movements, and the two instruments moving steadily apart during the following two, especially in the angry third, Wie ein Fuge (Like a Fugue), in which all trace of the earlier lyricism is blown away. Then, at last, the two voices, human and cello, come together for the second version of the Rilke poem.

Earlier in the recital, Brendel had played a Bach cello suite (No 1 in G) and Fellner played a Beethoven piano sonata (Op 10 No 1). But their fierce projection of this passionate new cycle swept memories of those performances totally aside.

The Cheltenham festival runs until 18 July. Box office: 0844 576 7979.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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