ELGAR – ‘Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85
FARR – ‘Cello Concerto “Chemin des Dames”
Sébastien Hurtaud (‘cello)
Benjamin Northey (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Rubicon RCD 1047
I tried, I REALLY DID try to NOT look at my previous review for “Middle C” of the concert featuring the Gareth Farr ‘Cello concerto played by the same ‘cellist, Sébastien Hurtaud (also with the NZSO, though with a different conductor, Hamish McKeich) before writing this present review of the piece’s CD recording – of course, it was a different performance which needed to be “responded to” on its own merits; but I also wanted to check out my reactions to the same piece heard on a different occasion, for nothing more than my own interest’s sakes. There are, after all, so many variables of a subjective nature at work experienced by any listener hearing the same piece of music twice, to the point where it can be a totally different experience the second time round. (Incidentally, the earlier “Middle C” review can be found at https://middle-c.org/2017/05/aotearoa-plus-from-the-nzso-set-alight-by-gareth-farr-premiere/).
One of the main factors which coloured each experience differently for me was the other music which Farr’s concerto was played alongside, perhaps rather less significantly on a recording, where the listener can, if she/he wishes, choose to hear any work as a “stand alone” experience. In the 2017 concert at which the concerto was presented, we also heard music by Pierre Boulez and John Adams, neither of which pieces seemed to me to have much to do with Gareth Farr’s work – which, of course, was neither here nor there, except that the concert’s advertised title was “Aotearoa-plus!”, and I remember expending a good deal of reviewer’s energy at the time complaining about having only ONE work by a New Zealand composer in the programme!
First on this new Rubicon CD was a performance by the same artists of another ‘cello concerto, one which had a good deal of commonality of circumstance with Farr’s work – this was Elgar’s E Minor Concerto Op. 85, written in 1919, in the First World War’s aftermath, and regarded by many commentators as a lament on the part of the composer for the horrors of the conflict and the destruction of a way of life. Farr’s concerto for the same instrument, written almost a hundred years later (1917), was also written with the First World War in mind, though more specifically dedicated to the memory of three of his great-uncles, who lost their lives in the conflict, and are buried in France and in Belgium. The work’s title “Chemin des Dames” (Pathway of Women) was the name of one of these places of conflict, but was employed here by the composer to underline the impact of loss the war had on women such as the composer’s great grandmother, who had lost her brothers.
I thus began my listening with the Elgar Concerto, a work indelibly associated for a whole generation of music-lovers, myself among them, with British ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose legendary 1965 recording made with Sir John Barbirolli continues to haunt the interpretative echelons of this work for all of its subsequent performers. To his credit Sébastien Hurtaud makes the work as much his own as could be humanly possible, a rich, and deeply mellow solo statement at the opening setting the tone of the performance as one both gorgeously-voiced and sensitively nuanced. He’s partnered by the NZSO conducted by Benjamin Northey, the playing alert, fresh and direct at all times, if, to my ears recorded a tad backwardly in relation to the soloist, which I thought reduced the poignancy of solo instrumental dialogues in places, while still giving plenty of weight to the “big moments”.
The ‘cello is captured beautifully, Hurtaud’s plauying bringing out the “striving” quality of the first theme introduced by the strings and rising confidently to meet the full orchestral tutti – strong, stern stuff, indeed! The subsequent exchanges between soloist and orchestra beautifully point the difference here between the minor- and major-key ambiences, the life and energy of the latter projected so whole-heartedly – and while the orchestra’s individual instrumental lines seem to me too reticently-placed compared with the soloist, the tuttis ring out clearly and satisfyingly, with the brass a real presence.
Hurtaud makes us pay attention to the softest of pizzicati during the transition to the scherzo, the orchestra responsive, and the exchanges volatile, so that when the scherzo finally kicks in, the surge of energy is electric. Again the full-blooded orchestral shouts are most exciting, but I wanted to hear more of the pointillistic detail of the dialogues – still the accelerando at the movement’s end here has a wonderful ‘edge-of-the-seat” spontaneity!
How beautifully these musicians breathed the slow movement’s opening – lines filled with nuance, and hearts pulsing as one! The power of the music’s self-reflection and its emotion seemed at times too candid to speak even of its own volition, the performance thus becoming a simple act of faith and will on the part of the players. Was the pause before the finale blustered in a shade too long? – when entering, the orchestra was right on the button with its crescendo, and afterwards supported the soloist’s musings with a rich carpet of sostenuto tones. Hurtaud’s sudden, thrusting, irruption-like phrases became a veritable call to action, and we were away, with splendidly virile tutti passages in response to the soloist’s energies. The exchanges took us through plenty of incident, the cellist’s discourse vying with wind figurations and flecks of passing orchestral colour – some of which I wanted to hear more of, though the rumbustious passages had real bite – and the drollery of the orchestral ‘cellos joining up with the soloist was a sequence of truly collaborative delight!
But then, to be plunged into the work’s next section after these relative pleasantries – into what one suddenly felt to be the “dark centre” of the work! – was a shock! Elgar was profoundly affected by the war’s tragedy, and the disastrous effects on both man and beast (the suffering reportedly endured by the horses in combat zones he found particularly upsetting!) – and as Sebastien Hurtaud tells us in his notes, the composer may have, while working on the concerto, heard of the death in battle of one Kenneth Munro, the son of his long-ago ex-fiancée, Helen Weaver (who, incidentally, emigrated to New Zealand after breaking off the engagement). Here, the music seems to openly weep, all inhibition forgotten, ‘cellist, conductor and players caught up in giving voice to an outpouring of despair, its darkness leavened only by a brief quotation from the slow movement and a surge of grim defiance via a flourish at the end.
Gareth Farr expresses surprise, writing a note in the CD booklet about his concerto, that the work has so much in common with the Elgar – he never expected it to be bracketed thus, so his own work was originally conceived with no conscious thought about the older composer’s concerto for the same instrument. The cyclic quality of both works struck him forcibly when producing this recording together with Sebastien Hurtaud, whose comments about both works also highlight the ritualistic “beginning and ending” aspect of both pieces. Both also point to the shared focus of each concerto upon the tragic “Great War” years, Hurtaud describing each piece as a kind of “Requiem”, in the cellist’s words, “universal in scope and rooted in personal dramas” – a powerful and succinct way of characterising their shared qualities.
To the Farr Concerto, then, one which sounded as much awakened into being as played, with orchestral strings gently activating ambiences coloured by harp and keyboard figurations – the cello’s lament-like bird-call sparked responses from winds and brass at first before fetching up a sudden vehement crescendo of orchestral sound, brutal but brief. In the recitative that followed, the cello was echoed by winds and brass, bugle calls and a stirring of ghosts, with lots of dialogues between the soloist’s meditations and full-scale and single-instrument orchestral responses. Hurtaud’s rapt playing touchingly evoked a wanderer picking a way through a sometimes desolate, sometimes disturbingly animated landscape, as if looking for something – seeking a voice or impulse that could bring enlightment or recognition, Farr’s writing creating ambiences “stirred and shaken” with intent whose lamentings, interacting with clarinet, oboe and harp, as well as the strings, eventually provoked conflagration.
As sorrow confronted anger, the music turned on itself, the lines and textures catching the solo ‘cello up in merciless conflict – a fusillade of orchestral sounds followed, whose purpose seemed to unleash the forces of negation, which sought to fragment and undermine substance, battling with the cello’s voicing of the exotically-tinged theme, and taking it over, holding it to what seemed like ridicule. It all became a kind of bacchanale of brutality, a bombardment of grotesquely-wrought shrapnel whose repeated waves ran their course before exhaustedly subsiding.
The ’cello was left “to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire”, which Hurtaud and his instrument did in an extraordinary display of energy interwoven with inwardness, a reaffirmation of life culminating with the return of the work’s opening – strings, celeste and harp, then percussion, winds and brass, the sounds stealing in to proclaim, amid the desolation, a laid-waste peace.
What seemed to me at the outset a pairing of entirely different compositions has, on rehearings of the disc, brought the “worlds” of the two works more closely together, above and besides the obvious commonality of association with the 1914-18 Great War – at one and the same time a vital and thought-provoking listening experience.