ALTHOUGH it takes place in June, Cambridge University’s graduation celebration is known as the May Ball, and shortly before I speak with one of its newest graduates there were pictures in the papers of the young folk celebrating in all their finery, regardless of the rain.

Among them was cellist Laura van der Heijden, BBC Young Musician of the year 2012 when she was just 15, and, seven years later, a Bachelor of Music, with, in her own words, “a solid 2:1”. Her teens and early 20s have been a process of combining a performing career to which the competition gave a flying start with the sort of complete education she wanted for herself. Van der Heijden has made the university town, where her boyfriend is a choral scholar, her home for now, but the completion of her studies heralded a step up in her demanding recital schedule, which sees her arrive at Paxton House in the Borders on July 26 to perform with one of her regular duo partners, pianist Tom Poster.

“I am happy that they are finished and that my exams went well, but it has been tough to balance my playing career with studying and having a social life,” she tells me. “I couldn’t invest too much time in studying, so I am pleased with how things have gone.”

Although a preciously-talented instrumentalist, as the judges at The Sage, Gateshead, in 2012 determined, van de Heijden decided to pursue her post-school education at university rather than a conservatoire, so that she could combine her music with languages - specifically Russian - and a more academic approach to her main study.

“I already had great cello teaching,” she says, “ and I needed something more for my own confidence and development.”

She explains that she needed to know more of the history of the music she was playing, and to be able to understand the context of the composition of a work like Brahms’ Requiem and how Schumann worked in his era. In particular she praises the teaching of Dr Peter McMurray and a course he calls “Decolonizing the Ear”. She credits the Harvard-trained saxophonist with widening the cultural context of music education at Cambridge, as well as making her think a lot about the role of Western classical music, and how she should programme recitals herself.

“I learned to address bigger philosophical questions from a broader perspective, and, although it can be frustrating, I now like talking about questions that can’t be answered!”

Her undergraduate degree out of the way, van der Heijden is eyeing the possibility of post-grad musical study at a conservatoire, but more immediately her goal is to practise a lot and do a great deal of playing, with a packed concert schedule that sees her criss-crossing the UK and visiting Germany, Poland and Russia before the end of the year, performing a huge volume of music.

“There a certain time in a career when you just go with the flow of what people ask you to do, and the concert diary just piles up. The next couple of weeks are ‘quite interesting’! Although I have tried to be careful through my studying, it has really been pretty full-on since 2012.”

A balance between orchestral and chamber music is another facet of that career, and the necessity of learning Martinu’s Cello Concerto No 1 before concerts with the touring Prague Symphony Orchestra in November is also in van der Heijden’s mind.

Her second album, and the first for a major label, is planned to be a recording of the Walton concerto with which she won the BBC competition. “It’s an amazing work for me, both personally and musically, and not so widely recorded,” she says. But it will be 2021 before that sees the light of day, and her debut album, 1948, which appeared last year, is still winning awards.

A duo recording of Russian works, the music is associated with the year of Stalin’s decree limiting the state’s approval of music composed for its own sake rather than the good of the Party. It was recorded with another of her recital partners, pianist Petr Limonov, for the small Champs Hill label and won her Newcomer of the Year in the BBC Music Magazine Awards in April. The repertoire is just as significantly formed by the cellist musical life story.

“I’ve been fascinated by Russia since before I was 11. My first teacher was from Romania and her father was an amazing Russian cellist, so that influenced my style of playing and my interest in Russian culture and in learning Russian. Whenever two or more Russians were talking together I wanted to know what they were saying; it is a very beautiful language.

“A debut CD carries a lot of weight and I was very afraid about that, so making 1948 was lovely because I had complete freedom in how and what was recorded. I needed to make it something that reflects me as a musician, not just a demonstration of my playing. The album meant something to me, and I am proud of the product even if I think I’d play some of it differently now. I was true to myself.”

As she concedes, she is “very self-critical”, because the critics found much to praise in her “cello singing out long lines of sustained intensity” that get to the heart of the music of Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Shaporin.

If that disc focused on a very specific period and locale, van der Heijden’s recital with Tom Poster, the culmination of the pianist’s two-day residency with Music at Paxton, ranges widely geographically and over 200 years.

As her conversation would lead you to assume, a great deal of consideration goes into the structure of one of the cellist’s recitals, so when she says that she and Poster are playing Bach, Britten, Boulanger and Brahms because they all begin with B, you can be certain she is joking. That would be the sort of tokenism for including the Three pieces for Cello and Piano by Nadia Boulanger of which she would not approve.

“I was introduced to those by Huw Watkins [composer and another pianist recital partner] and they are not played a huge deal and should be. I want to get more female composers into my repertoire, and I am actively making a conscious effort to put more women into my recitals.”

Poster has demonstrated the same aim, with his Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, including van der Heijden with violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White and Rosalind Ventris on viola, playing a fascinating programme of music by women at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Sunday July 14, featuring Boulanger’s sister Lili, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach.

The Paxton programme will also contain music that helped win the cellist her degree, in Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C, Opus 65, which she included in her final recital at Cambridge. What’s the betting that the audience in the lovely Picture Gallery at Paxton House will wonder only why this most thoughtful of young musicians was not awarded a First?

Music at Paxton runs from Friday July 19 to Sunday July 28. Laura van der Heijden and Tom Poster play on the evening of Friday July 26.