The young Argentine and widely acclaimed cellist Sol Gabetta, who today makes her home in Switzerland, tackled Edward Elgar’s great Concerto in E minor in Zurich. Known as the cornerstone of the cello solo repertoire, the concerto has none of the triumphal fanfare of the composer’s “Pomp and Circumstance”; it is contemplative and autumnal instead. If World War I had changed the face of Europe, its aftermath was not without its longing for the “the world of yesterday”, the Heile Welt that could never be retrieved. The muted colour and elegiac phrasing that mark this memorable work bear witness to this sentiment.

Sol Gabetta © Uwe Arens
Sol Gabetta
© Uwe Arens

While at the start in the first movement Gabetta seemed somewhat constrained, even lacking a little in lustre, she mastered the treacherous demands of the busy passages of fingering and seemed to warm more to the score after that. Drawing out her tremulous notes, looking almost innocently over her right shoulder, she imparted an otherworldly sweetness and sense of dreamy nostalgia. And the solo at the beginning of the second movement, namely, the calling up of the heart strings, was marvellous: both lyrical and intimate. The interpretation was less fluid than that of the legendary Jacqueline du Pré performance – the benchmark by which other performances of this work are often, perhaps unfairly, compared – but Gabetta made her own mark by an insistence on very slow tempo and a distinct separation of individual notes. At the end of the movement, her resolution sounded like a candle going out.

Elgar never wanted the soloist to be obliterated by the orchestra’s overbearing sound, but the third movement gives space to the oboe, bassoon and clarinet, all of which excelled here. It also gave Gabetta the chance to explore her fingerwork. In contrast to soft fabric of her lullabies and at the other end of the emotive spectrum, her pizzicato verged on the abrasive, but readily drummed up the emotion that any war leaves behind. And by the time the fourth and final movement barrelled upwards to hugely dense last chord, the electricity she and the orchestra had created together pointed convincingly towards something new. Indeed, Gabetta’s dramatic sweep − her bow high up above her head on the final note − struck me like an arrow pointing to the future.

After the interval came Dmitri Shostakovich’s grandiose Tenth Symphony. Urbanski had committed the highly complex score entirely to memory, a major feat in itself. 

Urbanski’s conducting style was no less remarkable. Each of the five long fingers on his left hand served as their own conducting tools; there might be a kneading motion, a sudden grasp, a flick or spark. Yet even more unusual was his artistry as a “dancer” to set the emotive charge. While his cues for the Elgar had been modest − sometimes almost incidental − he was greatly physical here. His arms soared over his head; the baton behind him, almost driving down the nape of his neck. He turned his body sideways to the players, contracted his body inward as if a flame were consuming his very core. Add to that the power of the full host of musicians making one hugely muscled sound – no fewer than ten celli and six double bass among them – and this became one very gripping drama indeed.

But it was one in which the whole orchestra starred. On the smaller scale, that translated to a pulse by the timpani, which syncopated rhythms rose above. On the larger scale, that meant a half dozen passages exploding, then diminishing their intensity and volume, and coming up with surprises, moving from a rigidly metered march to the innocent tune of a country dance. Despite the demands of the score, individual players – clarinet and flute to start, oboe and bassoon to follow − were consistently confident and powerful. 

In short, and for all its colourful contrasts and emotional ballast, the concert was a sheer delight. Sol Gabetta showed herself a gifted musician in the Elgar, which took us from the agonies of loss to the sweetness of nostalgia and promise. But it was in the majesty of the Shostakovich − from the plaintive to the cosmic – in which I took even greater pleasure. I was shaken in my boots, but found myself beaming from ear to ear.