Philip Higham is a major talent. Making his American debut in a recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, the young Scottish cellist played an ambitious program of solo cello suites by Bach and Benjamin Britten. In a repertoire that has confounded more seasoned artists, Higham offered object lessons in lyrical sensitivity, musical architecture and expressive insight.
Bach’s cello suites present a daunting challenge for any artist, as they have been performed and recorded by every major cellist since Pablo Casals. In Bach’s First and Second suites, which bookended the recital, Higham took a quasi-romantic approach that never lost sight of the music’s roots in baroque dance. He impressed with the clarity of his passagework, sensitivity of his phrasing and the ease of his expression, which took on an intimate, conversational quality. Only occasional scratchiness and highly audible breathing detracted from the performance.
Higham’s interpretations of Bach drew upon the full resources of modern cello playing: lyrical phrasing, contoured lines, graceful rubato and subtle gradations of color and dynamics. Yet he balanced refined expression with the dancelike character of the music, delightfully bringing out, for example, the playfulness of the First Suite’s courante and the driving rhythms of the concluding gigue. His one interpretative misstep came in the Second Suite’s courante, where a frenetic pace resulted in smeared notes.
Britten’s Second Cello Suite, performed before intermission, is one of three pieces for solo cello dedicated by the British composer to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and indebted to Bach. Although Higham may not possess the legendary Russian cellist’s sheer power and sweep, the young Scot nonetheless displayed full command of Britten’s terse, often fragmented musical language and varied psychological landscapes. Higham captured the tortured anguish of the scherzo, the prayerful atmospherics of the andante and the rugged power and extraverted confidence of the ciaccona, which brought the work to a thrilling close.
Chin is a freelance writer.