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Philippe HERSANT (b.1948)
Concerto for cello and orchestra No.2 (1966-1997) [37:45]
Heathcliff* (2005) [35:41]
Cyrille Tricoire (cello)
Orchestre National de Montpellier LR/Juraj Valčuha, Daniel Kawka* (conductor)
rec. live, Montpellier Opera Berlioz – Le Corum, 30 January 2004 (Concerto), 10 February 2006 (Heathcliff). DDD
ACCORD 442 8168 [73:23] 

Intelligent and adventurous programming has been a feature of the rise and rise of the National Orchestra of Montpellier. This CD is part of a series of new orchestral recordings which include rare works by well-known names, and the chance to hear some stunning new repertoire by those of which many will not have heard. 

Philippe Hersant was a student of Jolivet in the Paris Conservatoire, and has been winning prizes and forging a successful career ever since. His Concerto for cello and orchestra No.2 was inspired by reading a screenplay that Federico Fellini planned but never realised: ‘Il viaggio di G. Mastorna’, which follows the story of a cellist to the realm of the dead. The piece, while not intentionally programmatic, is theatrical – almost cinematographic in effect. The opening orchestral surges are like the tolling of a great doom-laden bell, over which the cello sighs mournfully. This is a recurring motive of course, but the score is filled with an incredible amount of skilfully orchestrated and inventive music, which really does take the listener on a journey filled with craggy landscapes, forbidding caves, or escapes through turbulent white-water rapids. The piece is quite a white-knuckle ride at times, and I could quite imagine it appearing as a highly effective soundtrack. It is a genuine cello concerto however, not film music, and Cyrille Tricoire’s excellent playing is more than a match for the large orchestral forces ranged behind him. Hersant says, “In this concerto, the cello seems like the hero in an opera without words”, which sums up the dramatic content of this impressive work well.

Heathcliff is an orchestral suite derived from Philippe Hersant’s ballet entitled ‘Wuthering Heights.’ The ‘opera without words’ idea is reiterated in Hersant’s own programme notes, and there is a list of symbolic motifs or references which, like Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, connect to characters and situations in the story. This suite gives us around one third of the entire ballet, and is divided into six movements. As you might expect, the music is passionate and highly charged, and Hersant’s writing must have been a gift to choreographer Kader Belarbi. Often oppressive and relentless, Hersant emphasises the circular nature of the novel and Heathcliff’s doomed character, through which tragedy and destruction are recurrent and inevitable. There are of course a few cultural clashes, the northern moors sounding sometimes a little more like the Camargue at times. Ultimately, Heathcliff and Catherine are re-united in the spirit world, at first expressed by, or wrung from warmly passionate strings and a ghostly, almost off-stage piano. Tolling tubular bells and piano are accompanied by bagpipes in the final minutes, the passage to the afterworld tainted by animal calls from a high clarinet – the ‘threat’ motive, suggesting that nirvana is unlikely to be any real comfort after all.

The recordings on this CD are generally good, although Heathcliff has occasional question marks around the balance between some instruments. As live recordings and performances go these are very good indeed, having that special atmosphere and energy which is what one looks for in such productions. Philippe Hersant’s music is at once approachable and challenging – not in the sense of being highly intellectually demanding, but in the way it can tap into the emotions and set the brain fizzing with imagery and associations. I must say I have enjoyed this disc very much indeed. It’s ‘proper music’: the equivalent of Peter Cook’s comment on paintings, ‘where the eyes follow you around the room …’

Dominy Clements 



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