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Terez Mertes

Tout un monde lointain...

April 28, 2011 at 11:32 PM

“Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque defunct, vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique,” (“A whole distant world, absent, barely alive, dwells in your depths, oh scented forest.”)


Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned this cello concerto. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire inspired it, albeit loosely. Pierre Boulez disdained its composer, Henri Dutilleux, and his work, which might be why Henri Dutilleux isn’t as famous as Pierre Boulez, who played such a big part in the contemporary classical music scene in postwar France.  

The concerto’s full title is “Tout un monde lointain… (‘A Whole Distant World…’) for Cello and Orchestra.”  I heard it for the first time recently, performed by the San Francisco Symphony with cellist Gautier Capuçon. It begins with an ever-so-soft, shimmery sound, a stiff metal brush against a drum head that commences the first movement. Dutilleux claimed that at the night of the concerto’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence, right as the concert began, in that instant, “a new breeze began gently to rustle the leaves of the plane tree, like the sound of waves and very similar to what I had been searching for when I wrote the score.” Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen. And thus, under that magic spell, the cello begins, offering its contemplative reply.

Listening, I felt as if I’d been transported inside a movie. One of those older ones, the kind you saw first as a kid, and it utterly engrossed you, encapsulated you, and of course it had a great soundtrack; it was all about the soundtrack, and was likely a mystery, a black and white one, a thoughtful movie, something sort of Twilight Zone-ish.

Gautier Capuçon, as the soloist, was sublime. This is the second time I’ve seen him perform and his efforts never fail to render me starry-eyed with admiration and infatuation. He had a thoughtful, intelligent way of playing the concerto, head angled in, as if he were finding the notes that were already there, deep within the cello. He wasn’t making music so much as releasing it into the air. I can’t decide if his stellar playing is in part due to his charismatic good looks and demeanor or that the two simply go hand in hand with him. I first saw him perform the Schumann Cello Concerto a few years back and, like this night, was completely wowed by him and his performance. My verdict: he is both sublimely talented and pleasing to watch perform.

Dutilleux, a mid-to-late 20th century composer, is not a serialist, a twelve-tone-ist, a modernist, a sentimentalist. He shuns isms and set styles and composes from his own well of individualism and carefully crafted creativity. His career has been one of “quality not quantity” and has won him many accolades and commissions from world-class musicians and ensembles, although he’s certainly not a household name, even within the classical music world. His music is striking. Moody, evocative, conjuring up colors and complex feelings and moods that you’re not sure how to define. And yet, lest we all get too sentimental, in alternating movements of “Tout un monde lointain…”  the cello gets feisty, the music harsher, more dissonant. The brass lets out a blast and there’s all sorts of drama going on. Like cockroaches crawling around in the night and you turn on the light in a room and they all scatter in a panic.

But just when the third movement had me convinced on Saturday night’s performance that I didn’t like the concerto, the fourth movement brought the strumming of a harp and a return of the dreaminess, albeit with an edge to it—an uneasiness, a mystery, but the kind that draws you in, captivates you. Like seeing a blood-red rose poking out of a snow-covered yard on an overcast winter twilight, and you don’t have shoes on, so you don’t go to check it out closer, you just marvel at the sight. It’s cold and you’re alone, but there’s that compelling, mysterious sight.

The concerto’s final movement brings the listener back to agitation, lively discord, melodic but not, with the cello’s final notes just sort of trailing off, as ambiguous an ending as they come. I left the concert hall an hour later, slightly discomfited, not sure exactly what I remembered, or would remember. Perhaps just the memory of Gautier Capuçon’s artistry, those slower, pensive moments where he was bent over his cello, finding those notes, releasing them into the air for the spellbound audience to catch.


© 2011 Terez Rose


PS: Here’s a wonderful audio recording of Rostropovich performing the concerto: 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 29, 2011 at 12:48 PM

What a wonderful description of the concerto and your experience listening to it!  I have never heard it, but I can certainly imagine it.  I can also relate to how enthralled you were sitting there.  One to put on my list to see if it ever comes to the Nation's Capital.  I have heard recordings of Capuçon but never seen him live.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 29, 2011 at 1:46 PM

 - I have heard recordings of Capuçon but never seen him live.

I found him as impressive and exciting to watch as Yo-Yo Ma. Really worth checking out. And thanks for your comments, Tom!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 1, 2011 at 12:45 AM

The SFS harpist is really, really good...



From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2011 at 1:34 PM

 Hey, Tornado Girl! Glad to see you could blow in here to comment. ; )

When I was writing this blog, trying to remember how it sounded, I listened to the Rostropovich audio recording, and also watched this nice quality YouTube production. catch the harpist when she plays that lovely, dreamy opening part in the 4th movement. (Although that's YouTube clip #4 and this link is to just the 1st mvmt.) Wish I had a recording of SFS and Gautier Capuçon ((sigh...)) to watch in the same way, but hey, I'll take this as substitute. 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 1:22 PM

"Tornado Girl" - I love it!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 2:56 PM

 Well, if she doesn't reply here to your "tornado girl" comment, we'll know she's just blowing us off. ; )

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 6:10 PM

 How do you feel as a violinist listening to a cello soloist?  Is it like a cousin, or a whole separate world?  Like some of the violin repertoire being too high, I can feel that some of the cello repertoire is too low for me to really listen to comfortably. There was a little of that in that clip you linked to--even though it was skillfully played some of it sounded growly, like it was in a different world. My son has just started learning the cello and he seems to really like it (he's 7).  I wonder if it'll grow on me as a solo instrument as I hear more of it.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 8:00 PM

 Karen, I must say, I really, really have acquired a taste for the cello repertoire, particularly the concertos. I think now that I've listened to (and enjoyed) 80% of the violin concerto repertoire, that's where I'm leaning. I love piano concertos too, always have, but the cello is just so deep and resonant and tugs at my heartstrings (or perhaps, literally, produces vibrations inside me) in a way that's so different from the violin. Just love it. The one I feel sort of bad for not being able to get used to, is viola concertos. Must be careful here, as I know you and several others have played and/or prefer the viola, but to me, it's the one that is sort of caught in the middle - not the violin, but not that distinctly different animal, the cello.

The Schumann cello concerto I heard Capuçon play a few years back - that one was just sublime. And I'm SUCH a fan of Yo-Yo Ma. So, perhaps it's the performers, as well, that are contributing to the positive experience.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 8:11 PM

And no conversation of charismatic cellists would be complete without posting this YouTube performance. Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser. Classic training meets contemporary playing.

I have it bookmarked as "cellist eye candy." Huge fun to watch. Give it a look, Karen (and everyone) and tell me what you think.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 10:13 PM

I love the cello, too.  My father played it as an adult, not well, but he worshiped Emanuel Feuermann, a cellist who died much to young and left much too little recorded.   I agree with my father on Feuermann.  As far as cello "eye candy," I will not reveal my preferences (lol).

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 1:25 PM

 Terez, that's just why I like the viola, because it's in the middle.  I think it has the best pitch range for my ear to listen to--nothing's too high, nothing's too low, it's all just right.  When I'm practicing the violin I often end up playing difficult passages an octave down first to really hear what the pitches should be before trying to get it in tune up in the gerbil zone.  And sometimes I just want the cello to be an octave up. And that's so interesting that you do so much concerto listening.  I rarely, if ever, listen to concertos (on any instrument).  I'm not even sure I've heard an entire cello concerto the whole way through.  

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 2:13 PM

 Tom, that's fun to know about your dad; in fact that's sort of the feeling hearing the cello gives me. This sort of parental security feeling - oh, I'm sure that came out all wrong. Maybe it's from back when I was working on my violinist novel and the nicest, most stable guy in the whole story was the cellist, and my main character was drawn to that. The point. It produces a sound that comforts me in amazing ways. And, um, when combined with eye-candy cellists, it does more than comforts me. ; )

Karen, your comments are so interesting! I really think our sensibilities are slated for one instrument/pitch or another. I know I'll never play the viola - it just doesn't fall into that pleasure range of mine. As for listening to concertos, well, in truth, I will always be a hopeless musician and instrumentalist. I'm a listener, first and foremost. My "skills," if you will, lie there. Guess that's why I write about performances I attend far more than my own experiences in playing the violin (really not much to say there besides the eternal struggle to practice and learn and advance at baby steps). I guess "those who can't, listen." And the concerto is my favorite. Well, that and the symphony. Well, now I will add the violin/cello/piano sonata to the list. And string quartets. And quintets.

Okay, I'll stop now.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 2:22 PM

 >...before trying to get it in tune up in the gerbil zone.

Oh man, now that image has been planted in my head! I will blame you personally if I now only think "rodents" when I'm struggling, high up on the E string. ; )

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 2:39 PM

We both have Anne Horvath to thank for the "gerbil zone."  That's hers, but I love it and use it at many opportunities.  

As for concertos, I don't have to listen to them myself, I can just read you writing about them, which for some reason is more fun!  

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 4:26 PM

 >We both have Anne Horvath to thank for the "gerbil zone."

Of course now that I'm thinking of it, what is springing to mind visually is Alvin and the Chipmunks. Oh dear. That image is really adhering now...

And thank you for liking my concerto ramblings. : )

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 8:33 PM

On which side of the bridge is the "gerbil zone" found?

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 4, 2011 at 3:33 AM

Hey, you're the expert here, Tom, not me. You tell me. I just found out about these gerbils today.

But I'm guessing... the wrong side of the bridge.

Wait. The phrase is about railroad tracks, isn't it? Oh well, it sounds good here.

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