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Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Tout un monde lontain… [27:54]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quartet for the End of time – V. “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” [8:24]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata in D minor for cello and piano [11:17]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pièce en forme de habanera [2:57]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33 [19:04]
Leonard Elschenbroich (cello)
Alexei Grynyuk (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson, Stefan Blunier
rec. 2016, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusilsaal (chamber works); City Halls, Glasgow (concertos)
ONYX CLASSICS 4173 [69:44]

Two concertos not only frame this captivating programme of French music, but provide the chronological starting and finishing points – albeit in reverse order. Composed in 1872 the Saint-Saëns signified a revival in French music in the wake of the nation’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. A century later, during which France had again been humiliated in two world wars, Dutilleux produced his work – a concerto in all but name – which effectively closed an era during which French composers took established musical genres and imbued them not only with their own distinct style but, more especially, a sound which has almost come to define French music of the siècle.

Our guide for this musical journey through 100 years of French musical individuality is the German cellist, Leonard Elschenbroich, whose playing here is characterised not so much by an innate feeling of the style, but by a questing spirit and forthright inquisitiveness which seems to dig deep into the music and draw from it moments of extraordinary beauty and great emotional intensity while never lapsing into self-indulgent exploitation of timbre. He is partnered in the three chamber works by the Ukrainian pianist, Alexei Grynyuk, who is manifestly singing from the same interpretative hymn sheet as Elschenbroich but takes his function way beyond that of a mere accompanist or even partner in crime, and on occasions comes close to dominating the proceedings.

That is certainly the case with the movement from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps where Grynyuk’s heavily treading chords have more the feel of the laborious trudge to the cross than the ecstatic revelation of the eternity of the resurrected Jesus. Above this, Elschenbroich pushes out Messiaen’s cello line with a strength of purpose and a deliberation which robs it of its inherent mysticism. I remain unconvinced that it was ever going to be a really successful idea to tear a single, isolated movement from Messiaen’s great quartet, and present it as a stand-alone piece for cello and piano; to do this seems to diminish the intensity of Messiaen’s visionary writing.

The Messiaen is, though, my only genuine disappointment with this disc. Beside it is a ravishing account of Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera; performed here not in Ravel’s own arrangement for cello and piano but one by the French cellist Paul Bazelaire. Here Elschenbroich and Grynyuk perfectly capture that strange and elusive sense of wistful, almost nostalgic view of a Spanish dance which elevates Ravel’s music and fills its brief time-span with a magical aura of timelessness.

Even more effective is their compelling account of the Debussy Cello Sonata, one of the projected series of instrumental sonatas Debussy worked on towards the end of his life. As with the Ravel, Elschenbroich and Grynyuk capture that elusive quality which informs so much French chamber music of this century. The opening flourish from the cello has an almost English pastoral-feel in the way Elschenbroich ruminates over it, but his lovely use of subtle dynamic shading and, particularly, the delicious flexibility of rhythm both players show, brings out the true essence of Debussy, not least in the central movement which he originally intended to subtitle “Pierrot Angry with the Moon” and which is beautifully described in Philip Borg-Wheeler’s concise notes as “strangely frustrated”.

The real interest in this disc lies, however, in the two concertos which, in style, language mood and design could hardly be more different. Joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony and conductor Stefan Blunier, Elschenbroich deftly sweeps through the Saint-Saëns, full of elegance, grace, dramatic flair and tight-lipped expressiveness. The clarity of the music and Saint-Saëns’s trademark logic and neatness of design are splendidly conveyed in this strong performance.

The Dutilleux work is altogether more elusive, its five movements each headed by quotations from Baudelaire, combining a sense of fragility and other-worldliness which Elschenbroich and conductor John Wilson together evoke with absolute sincerity. From the opening cello statement, Elschenbroich reveals his special ability to bend and adjust time to give music that free-flowing, ethereal feel which Dutilleux sought. While this is a performance which gives an almost angular edge to the musical ideas, robbing them of any romantic inclinations, it is also one which has a pleasing sense of focus. Some might see this as a Germanic view of Dutilleux, the third movement coming across more as an angry fragmentation of ideas than the great swelling of the seas (as implied by the movement’s title). Certainly this is a performance which contrasts radically with those other players (including the work’s original dedicatee, Rostropovich) for whom texture seems to assume greater importance. Wilson commands his orchestral forces with exceptional care and attention, achieving an almost terrifying orchestral climax at the close of the second movement which is beautifully captured by a comfortably proportioned recording.

Marc Rochester



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