It’s commonplace to turn classical drama into opera, but not many have been successfully converted to instrumental music (Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet comes to mind) and I can’t think of any that have been converted into chamber music. Until, that is, last night’s concert at Sommets Musicaux. The play in question was Racine’s Bérénice, turned in 1892 by Rita Strohl into her Grande Sonate dramatique pour violoncelle « Titus et Bérénice ». 

Edgar Moreau and David Kadouch
© Miguel Bueno

Whether Rita Strohl has faded into obscurity because of being female or because she fled the Paris musical establishment and led a bizarre life (which included an ill-fated attempt at creating a French equivalent of Bayreuth, which foundered when World War I broke out), this piece is wonderful: it puts me in mind of a Liszt opera paraphrase, filled with quantities of dramatic colour that you would think impossible with such limited resources.

It’s also a perfect piece for cellist Edgar Moreau and pianist David Kadouch, who have resurrected this forgotten item. Like all the music in this concert, the cello and piano are equal partners – the word “accompanist” had no place here. Moreau has a huge sound, particularly rich and mellow in the middle register, which he uses to great dramatic effect. Kadouch can match him for weight of sound, maintaining a legato shape of overall phrase out of a cascade of notes, pounding chords or imparting delicacy when the occasion requires.

Edgar Moreau
© Miguel Bueno

Bérénice is an unusual beast: a tragedy where no-one dies. the Roman emperor Titus is desperately in love with his Palestinian-born lover, but the emperor may not marry a non-Roman. Titus chooses duty over love and Bérénice is exiled. Strohl portrays the different emotions vividly: long breathed melodies portray tenderness and heartache, pizzicato cello forms the backbone of militaristic march music, resolutely cheerful music with a touch of orientalism depicts Berenice’s servants trying to distract their mistress from her woes. It’s the slow lyrical passages in which Moreau excels, particularly effective at using vibrato to develop the character of a long-held note, but also adding interest with the bow to long notes on the open strings. At the very start of the work, Kadouch created threat with low, rumbling rolls. The slow third movement lifted me out of my seat as it broadened out from simple phrases which echo the rhythms of Chopin’s E minor Prelude. The pair combined best in the final movement, in which the lovers’ emotions represented by legato cello are contrasted with a more angular piano part which portrays the harshness of the world outside. This was exciting playing which fully lived up to the “dramatic” tag in the work’s name.

Racine’s poetry is always elegant, and even in the most vivid parts, the playing here retained a degree of that. But it’s trumped by the epitome of French (well, Belgian) elegance: César Franck’s Violin Sonata, played here in the Franck-approved arrangement for cello by Jules Delsart. The legato wasn’t quite there at the beginning, but the pair warmed up rapidly and soon, the long cantabile melodies interwove sinuously between cello and piano. Franck continually makes well delineated shifts in the music – a change of pace or a mood shift – and these transitions came through beautifully. The con fuoco passages raised the heart rate, and by the time we got to the reprise of the opening melody towards the end of the first movement, the performance had become thoroughly engrossing.

Poulenc’s Cello Sonata is a more mercurial work, showing the greatest range of musical styles – staccato runs, jazz chords that could have come out of Gershwin, some deep glissandi which Moreau made the most of. You sense the composer’s ebullience in all the different things he can create, but for me, this was the work of the evening that made the least emotional impact. A fun addition to the programme, but perhaps not one to stay in the memory.

I couldn’t pretend that this was a technically perfect concert. With virtuosic piano parts in all three works, Kadouch sometimes retreated into his own playing and was a little isolated from his partner. With Moreau’s sound so full in mid-range, the piano was sometimes too loud when the cello was playing in its highest or lowest registers. Moreau does crunch his face into some odd grimaces. I could name more, but that’s not the point: here were two very young musicians – Moreau is just 24 – playing to thrill and, overwhelmingly, succeeding in doing so. They’ve recorded this programme and are playing it in various venues: catch it if you can.

David’s stay at the festival was sponsored by Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad.