Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Le carnaval des animaux
Gabriel Fauré: Sicilienne Op.78
Gabriel Fauré: Élégie in C minor Op.24
Elgar: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op.85 (arranged for cello and piano by the composer)
César Franck: Cello Sonata in A major (arranged from the Violin Sonata in A major by Jules Delsart)
All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
Monday June 25, 2018
Rafael Hoekman (cello)
Jeremy Spurgeon (piano)
The 35 years or so between 1880 and the start of World War I is such an interesting and attractive period for classical music. Quite apart from the early beginnings of composers who were to revolutionize music – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, to name but three – there is, alongside powerhouses of Mahler and the Richard Strauss, a kind of warm glow to the last embers of Romantic music (and, perhaps, a more innocent world), that expressed itself in some places in a pastoral nationalism, in others in a mystical symbolism, in others in Impressionism.
This was the period that cellist Rafael Hoekman and pianist Jeremy Spurgeon concentrated on in their enterprising concert at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral (where Spurgeon is the organist) on June 25. It was all the more welcome for being on an unusual day of the week for a concert in Edmonton – a Monday evening – and the surroundings of the Cathedral, with its warm brickwork, its tapestries and its stained-glass, suited this ambience well, and acoustically worked surprisingly effectively.
Hoekman is, of course, the Principal Cello of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and a considerable asset to that orchestra. The hallmarks of his playing are the richness of his tone, and the considerable emotional involvement in the music. His is, indeed, a Romantic style, happy to use vibrato emotively, and revelling in the phrasing and in the skills of changing colour and tone within a long phrase. Spurgeon, so often appearing in different musical roles in the city (as readers of these reviews will know), is a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist, but also a fine chamber musician, as he showed here.
The concert opened with a kind of prelude to that warm Romanticism of the evening: Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan’, written in 1886, which set just the right tone for music on a very hot summer’s evening.
Of the two Fauré’s selections that followed, his 1886 Sicilienne is, with its rippling opening piano, its musing yet singing cello lines, and its gentle fade way into inconclusiveness, quintessential idyll music of the period. His Élégie (1880) is better known (especially in the arrangement that Fauré made for cello and orchestra) and more stentorian. Both were beautifully played, with a notable moment in the Élégie when Spurgeon allowed the rhythmic line in the piano to free up and open out, and was then matched by Hoekman.
The central work in the concert, though, was composed when the innocence of that period had been shattered by the First World War. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, written in 1919, somehow manages to combine those rich Edwardian colours with a deep sense of regret and yearning, and it is almost impossible not to hear in it a lament for all those who had died. Elgar himself made the transcription for cello and piano a year after the full score was published. It’s a work that is daunting enough in its orchestral version (the cello is playing almost non-stop), but perhaps even more so when the cello is so exposed by being matched with piano alone. Of course there are moments when one misses the orchestra, but, to counteract that, the thinner textures means one can hear little unexpected details, the unfolding of the structure really comes across, and the arrangement is particularly effective in the slow movement.
Hoekman’s playing was wonderfully fluid from the outset, with very long phrasing, a consistency of tone, and the passion that the piece demands. If he was not quite so strong in the fast passage work of the second movement, the demands are considerable, the third movement was beautifully played, and the tempi in the finale well judged. More important, this was an emotive performance, and to give the whole concerto in the context of an already weighty recital was a risk that was fully justified in the playing.
César Franck’s Cello Sonata is an arrangement, by the French cellist Jules Delsart and sanctioned by the composer, of the Violin Sonata in A major. The piano part remains exactly the same, though the cello part of necessity has some changes, and Franck’s publisher simply included the cello solo part in with the violin score. In its violin form, it is one of Franck’s most celebrated works, and in its cello form it is one of the staples of the cello repertoire. Indeed, it was the last work that Jacqueline du Pré, who was so responsible for popularizing the Elgar Cello Concerto, recorded in the studio.
In spite of its rather autumnal opening, and although the violin sonata was written in 1886 (as a wedding present for the violinist Ysaÿe), it belongs to an earlier era than the rest of the works in this concert, weightier in feel and sound in the way that Brahms is weightier than Dvořák, more Balzac than Proust. Grand in its scale and ambitions, it received a performance to match, the highlight the deep solemnity and weight of the playing (and the lyricism that followed) in the third movement.
The concert ended with another piece written as an engagement present, Elgar’s Salut d’amour, which he wrote in Seattle in 1888, and brought back for his fiancee Caroline Alice Roberts. Like the Franck, it was originally written for violin and piano, but when it was published (as Liebesgruss – ‘Love’s Greeting’) a year later there were versions for violin and piano, piano solo, cello and piano, and for small orchestra (now perhaps the version most often heard). It is the Edwardian salon piece par excellence, with its winning song-like tune, a touch of wistfulness, its hint of knowing sophistication – a perfect way to end this most enjoyable concert, not just for the music, but because it was also Rafael Hoekman’s wedding anniversary.