By Richard Wilson

The Czech Moravian cellist and pianist Jan Škrdlík and Petra Besa returned for the third time in four years in November last year to the Shirehall in Hereford where, in its vastly improved acoustic, thanks to the Herefordshire Council, they gave, with his 1770 Tononi cello and her playing the resident Yamaha Grand Piano, a stirring concert. It bore out what Charles Burney wrote in 1772 about the Czechs: “the most musical people perhaps of all Europe”, reinforced fifty years later by the French composer Hector Berlioz, saying “the best musicians in Europe, and love of music in all classes of society”. On an English classical concert scene where great beauty seems rare, poetry shines fitfully through the ever-present clouds, and passion a sun that scarcely ever rises, they bestowed, magnificently, all three elements on a spellbound audience.

Are there pieces in the cello and piano chamber music repertoire to match what they played, Ludwig van Beethoven’s third of five cello sonatas, Op 69; Antonin Dvorak’s cello/piano version of his Cello Concerto; and César Franck’s Violin Sonata in its cello/piano conversion? Beethoven, by the time of his middle period breakthrough, epitomized by the outstanding piano sonatas, the Appassionata, Waldstein and Les Adieux, and the Rasumovsky String Quartets, gave to the Op 69 Sonata both an original form and gripping dialogue. After the lively Allegro comes not a Classical period Andante or Adagio but a lilting Scherzo, so buoyant that it could be viewed as the heart of the composition, were it not for the final hair-raising Allegro Vivace. That begins with an 18-bar Adagio as ravishingly lyrical as any he wrote from Op 1 to Op 135, ending with a furioso interplay of instruments, majestic beyond belief.

With Brahms’ comment in mind: “I should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that occurs to Dvorak only by the way” it is scarcely surprising that his Cello Concerto is the most famous for its melodic beauty. And maybe why the cello/piano version is, unjustly, so rarely played. The composer sensed its worth by taking part in the 1896 première. How he must have relished, particularly, the introduction and closing bars, which lose none of their drama, and gain seriously from the intimacy of the cello/piano rapport; its Schubertian “heavenly lengths”, sustained by constant variation in tempi and dynamics, make you long for it never to end. This was helped hugely by these musicians having Dvorak in their bloodstream so as to bring out the elements, specifically Czech, which Smetana had originally fought to establish but, through the duo’s breadth of vision, also its universal nature, which Dvorak, with broad sweeps of brush, naturally evoked on this multi-layered canvas.

The César Franck, which a biographer dubbed “a towering masterpiece”, makes most musical mountains seem like mere foothills, so lofty are its emotional and compositional peaks. The second of the four movements alone is a rhapsodical tour de force soaring heavenwards, in which Jan Škrdlík and Petra Besa paint a rainbow of colours so scintillating and varied that it lit up the entire auditorium. In doing so, did they not conjure up a kinship to that of Clara Haskil and Artur Grumiaux in Mozart, and Hephzibah and Yehudi Menuhin in Beethoven? (Little did I dream ever of hearing music to move me as much as their Spring Sonata in Prades.) But the Czechs go beyond in their absolutely daredevil attack, ranges of timbre and expressiveness. Škrdlík’s name in Czech is linked to the rasping of a saw which he brilliantly embodies when needed, a cellist that assaults the strings with unbridled passion, then melts the heart with a lyrical, honeyed outpouring of the composer’s soul, be it Beethoven, Dvorak or Franck.

He was sublimely matched by Petra Besa, whose command of the keyboard tells you at once that she, like the cellist, has profoundly developed from her student days when she won no less than seven different prizes. Her coruscating runs, beautifully struck ff, lambent (i.e. glowing with a soft radiance) touch, judgement of tempi and length of pauses make for a coherence so bewitching that she surely ranks with the handful of pianists who can convey feeling beyond the notes. Is this duo’s unanimity unparalleled as they sculpt every nuance, phrase, passage, seemingly with a total understanding of the score through deep forethought yet make it sound as if being played for the first time, like the dawn of a new sunrise?

In so doing, they bring to mind what Alan Hacker, the very great clarinettist and peerless conductor, notably of Mozart’s operas, said in a 1970’s BBC filmed interview: “The notes have been used a great deal – they are cliché-ridden … tradition and style … forgotten. Players seem to think that virtuosity is playing more quavers at breakneck speed … I am more interested in the exploration … of the colour of instruments.”

Does the character of the musicians shine through their playing? Surely Jan Škrdlík’s devastating wit, Petra Besa’s laughter and sense of fun cartwheel towards you, alongside what George Bernard Shaw saw in his preface to Man and Superman: “this is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature … my life belongs to the whole community … no ‘brief candle’ but a sort of splendid torch … to burn as brightly as possible.” They become Man and Superwoman in how the somewhat reticent English concert-goer responded in Hereford: at their final 2015 concert, the applause was drowned by cheers, whistles, catcalls. On this unforgettable Thursday evening, the Czechs were recalled three times; then not one person moved for five minutes or so, simply stunned by the glorious arch of sound they had gone through. In place of a standing ovation, a rooted seating, lost in wonder. Finally came the magical coda of an encore.