Emmanuelle Bertrand is one of my favourite currently performing cellists. If you have any interest in modern music and superlative cello playing, buy this disc. The best recording of the Dutilleux, Crumb and Ligeti works in my opinion. Just astonishing. The review there gives a very good idea of why - the enormous timbral palette, beautiful pointing, and wonderfully rich sound make her a very individual artist. Her other recordings are also very good - one to particularly treasure is her recording of the three Bloch solo cello suites.
Seeing an artist that one admires hugely in concert is of course risky as it's going to be very difficult for them to live up to your expectations. You know their recording of piece X played in the perfect acoustic and conditions of the recording studio, the best takes spliced together to make an ideal whole that never existed in real time in real sound. So with this in mind, I was a little underwhelmed by the first half of this concert, which consisted of Bertrand playing The Dutilleux Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher and pianist Pascal Amoyel in Grief's piano sonata.
The Trois Strophes are maybe the greatest solo cello works since Kodaly's solo sonata (OK, actually the Britten Suites are in there too. As good as those though. Really good then.) but they are extremely difficult, and few do them full justice. Bertrand seemed hesitant, and playing without a score was surely part of the problem. There was an early memory slip which seemed to put her on edge throughout, meaning she never really presented them positively enough. The sound which I love so much from the recordings is interesting when heard live - she never "digs in" to the instrument, everything is coaxed and stroked out as if she's using a baroque bow. Occasionally this makes the phrasing a little lumpy (especially as her confidence seemed shaken), but the sound is that of a dusky alto, warm, and round, if not always full, rather than the very unpleasant strident tenor sound that cellos make in the middle register if there is too much pressure. Low down, the notes seem to hum and throb out without any tension. It's an endlessly interesting sound, and the amount of colours she gets is sometimes bewildering. Very french one might say. As I say, the tradeoff is sometimes with line, though I am maybe extra sensitive to this at the moment as I have recently been watching Rostropovich during his prime in the 50s and 60s, and the legato is perfect, he is simply a voice.
After this shaky start, Bertrand left the stage, and Pascal Amoyel continued with Greif's Piano sonata no.22 op.319 "Les Plaisirs de Chérence": Égarements de La Roche-Guyon. Greif is a very interesting composer, all pain and moments of lyrical beauty who of course died young, but as the insanely high opus numbers suggest, his output is huge, and very inconsistent. This piano sonata is absolutely appalling, using every modern music cliche in the book, and one gets lost keeping up with the magpie's nest of references: the first movement is Schnittke meets Nyman, the second Satie meets Schubert, and after that I stopped caring because the result is so banal and has so little character of its own. When there are so many more interesting works in Greif's output, why this one? This performance didn't convince one otherwise as to its worth - heavy on huge physical gestures, grunting and frowning intensity - even with this clear commitment and belief Amoyel couldn't sell the piece, and it all made it somehow even less appealing.
The second half was much better. Bertrand played Itinerance for solo cello, a piece composed by her duo partner. Sensibly she opted to take the score onstage this time, but she played with her eyes shut throughout and much more physical restraint than before. It's a touching piece within its limited means with a surprising ending. You can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtR_uTaszN0
The final piece on the programme was Greif's Sonate De Requiem Op. 283 for cello and piano - finally the two artists were united on stage! This was the evening's finest portion. Although superficially there are many things that are similar to the piano sonata already essayed - polystylism, dynamic extremes, strangely dislocated "layers" happening simultaneously - the earlier opus is superior in every way, and one is tempted almost to call it a masterpiece. The word "haunting" is used far too often to describe classical music, but this music seems "haunted" - chorale like specters drift over skeletal landscapes of bleakly hollow chords, whilst traditional Jewish songs intone into the void. Motives return again and again, tunes like memories, circular, stuck, broken, but then moments of radiant calm and softn beauty appear, beacons of hope in the darking mists. It's quite an extraordinary piece, and the ending is a wonderful enigma. Finally we heard some truly great music making too - Bertrand and Amoyel feeding off each other, steering a careful course through the Sonata's veiled narrative and producing something quite special. If only they had chosen to play together more this evening!