Friday 22 January 2021

Chemin des Dames: premiere recording of New Zealand composer Gareth Farr's cello concerto, written in memory of his great-uncles killed in the First World War

Elgar Cello Concerto, Gareth Farr Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames; Sébastien Hurtaud, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey; Rubicon

Elgar Cello Concerto, Gareth Farr Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames; Sébastien Hurtaud, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey; Rubicon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
New Zealand composer Gareth Farr's new cello concerto, written in memory of three great-uncles killed in the First World War, is paired with Elgar's concerto written in the war's aftermath

This new disc from French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Benjamin Northey on Rubicon features two cello concertos linked by the First World War yet separated by a century. Elgar's Cello Concerto was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, whilst Gareth Farr's concerto, written in 2017, was inspired by family stories of the deaths of his three great uncles (all brothers) in the First World War and the concerto's title Chemin des Dames is a reference to one of the war's more notorious moments [You can learn more about this from the video on the New Zealand History website].

The pairing of the two makes for a neat package and is a highly effective programme, but on disc the Elgar concerto casts a long, long shadow from the composer's two recordings (acoustic and electric) with Beatrice Harrison, through the iconic 1960s recording with Jacqueline Dupre and John Barbirolli (which effectively defines the concerto for many people) to the present day.

Now timings are not necessarily a complete indicator of the approach to the work, but it is perhaps interesting to know that Beatrice Harrison and Elgar take 25 minutes for the concerto whilst Dupre takes 30 minutes, most other cellists lie between the two though few modern cellists take the Harrison/Elgar approach. Elgar had a notoriously no-nonsense attitude to his own music, and since his death speeds in his symphonic works have become broader (this isn't just an Elgar thing, there is a similar phenomenon with Rachmaninov and his music). Elgar would no doubt have regarded the Dupre/Barbirolli account as been over indulgent and over-wrought, but for many this approach has come to define the deep emotions in the work.

Hurtaud nails his colours to the mast from the very outset when, during the introductory recitative the cellist stretches the musical line almost to breaking point, allied to a warmly expressive tone. Throughout the work, I was impressed by his tone qualities and by the expressiveness of his phrasing, but there seemed to be a little too much self-indulgence in the speeds. Once the introduction is over, the first movement proper sings well but is slightly under speed with a sense of lacking in impetus. That said, this not one of those recordings which constantly stop to smell the flowers, having set a tempo, Northey and Hurtaud stick to it with just a little rubato.

Sébastien Hurtaud & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the premiere of Gareth Farr's cello concerto in 2017
Sébastien Hurtaud & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the premiere of Gareth Farr's cello concerto in 2017
The opening of the second movement is again highly thoughtful, though once the movement proper gets going both orchestra and soloist develop a nice impetus and I loved Hurtaud's way with the high passagework. For many the third movement is the emotional heart of the piece, though I should point out that Hurtaud and Northey take almost a full minute longer than Elgar and Harrison. Hurtaud sings beautifully here, and it isn't so much the tempo as the fact that the music often seems to lack a sense of forward motion. In the final movement, Northey seems to be aiming at symphonic grandeur rather than impetus, and whilst the performance works well on its own terms, I would have liked a fundamentally faster tempo. Overall, this is a thoughtful and meaningful performance, very much in the modern style. As the album is very much pitching the concerto as a response to the First World War, then perhaps this interpretation works.

I first came across Gareth Farr's music on United Strings of Europe's In Motion disc [see my review]. A major name in his native country of New Zealand (Farr was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2006 Queen's Birthday Honours for services to music and entertainment), his music is perhaps not as well known in the UK as it should be. He trained in New Zealand and at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and has had a career as a percussionist alongside that of composer. His Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames was a 2017 New Zealand Symphony Orchestra commission and the work was premiered by the orchestra with Sébastien Hurtaud as soloist. [You can see a video of the work's premiere on the publisher, Promethean Editions' website]

Benjamin Northey and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the recording sessions (Photo Gareth Farr)
Benjamin Northey and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the recording sessions (Photo Gareth Farr)
The concerto is in a single movement lasting just under 30 minutes and begins from nothing as the solo cello emerges from atmospherics in the orchestra. The work is cyclical in that the conclusion revisits material from the opening, and along the way the cello leads the orchestra through a variety of moods and emotions, with different sections punctuated by solo cello moments culminating in a substantial cadenza-like solo which leads into the final section.

Whilst the soloist is often to the fore, this is not a combative concerto in the 19th century manner and there is more of a sense of the soloist leading everyone in an exploration. There is a filmic quality to some of the writing, and in the quieter sections near the beginning Farr evokes a sense of something happening in the distance in the orchestra behind the cellist. In the faster sections I kept getting whiffs of Walton's Cello Concerto (written for Gregor Piatigorsky in 1957), though in some places Farr's use of percussion (the work calls for a timpanist and two percussionists) suggests something more Far Eastern. The music is predominantly melancholy and thoughtful, and even the fast moments never manage to knock the soloist out of its reverie, which returns full circle at the end of the work.

Farr's music is tonally based but complex, and he makes his orchestra work hard, getting a rich texture from an ensemble effectively based on an classical sized orchestra (plus percussion, timpani, celeste and harp). This means that there is never a fight with the soloist, yet the backdrop to the very prominent solo role is a lovely tapestry of sounds and motifs.

Sébastien Hurtaud makes a fine exponent of the solo part, bringing out the melancholy and reverie whilst at the same time taking the more virtuoso moments in his stride. He is ably supported by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Benjamin Northey.

I have to confess that it is for Farr's concerto that I will be returning to this disc. Hurtaud's account of the Elgar is creditable and has much to commend it, yet it doesn't quite hit the spot for me. Given the vast competition in this work, I had wondered whether finding another way through the programme might have been better so that Hurtaud could have given us a lesser known work.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [29:51]
Gareth Farr (born 1968) - Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames (2017) [29:10]
Sébastien Hurtaud (cello)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Benjamin Northey (conductor)
Recorded at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 16-18 April 2019
RUBICON RCD1047 [59:04]

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