Camille Thomas and Julien Brocal

Review: An astonishing show of musical joy and skillfulness from Camille Thomas and Julien Brocal

April 9, 2021

Schwartz Center Virtual Stage
Camille Thomas, cello
Julien Brocal, piano
RAVEL: “Kaddisch” from Deux mélodies hébraïques
BRAHMS: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E-minor, Op. 38
FRANCK: Sonata in A major, M.8

Giorgio Koukl | 12 APR 2021

This prerecorded recital was produced April 4th in a private studio of the artist and sculptor Isabelle de Borchgrave in Brussels, Belgium. This choice of venue, while certainly fascinating, presented some challenges due to lack of space. Likewise was the position of featured cellist Camille Thomas quite an unlucky one towards the piano. In order to communicate visually with the pianist, she had practically to turn hear head around completely.

As both young artists definitely are great communicators, and their musical complicity demonstrates this in every single minute of the whole concert. The cellist was very often playing in quite difficult body positions; this never damaged her beautiful phrase-building and natural flow of sound.

The pianist, Julien Brocal, was put in front of a less than good piano, but with his great capacity for dynamic gradation he somehow managed to hide this hindering aspect. The sound of both young musicians was extremely well captured, especially considering that the venue certainly had no naturally good acoustic. The video capture was perfectly professional, far better than what we were used in recent times of COVID. Even here the lack of space was responsible for some limited choice of possible images, some very good, some questionable like the far too frequent vision of piano dampers.

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It is fully unnecessary to mention the sublime sound of the Stradivarius “Feuerman” from 1730 played by Ms Thomas. One of the only 36 existing instruments, being among the last five built by the great Cremona master, is surely one of the best worldwide and in hands of Camille Thomas it sounded sublime.

The concert opened with a small piece by Maurice Ravel called “Kaddisch” (or “Kaddish”) extracted from his Deux mélodies hébraïques in a transcription by Australian violinist Richard Tognetti. It is certainly an unusual elaboration of a highly religious Jewish prayer, known from antiquity. Its old Aramaic meaning is that of a mourning ritual, supposed to be recited in a group of at least ten men aged more than thirteen years. A few words gives us more than a tiny idea of the depth of the theme:

“In the world which will be renewed and where He will give life to the dead and raise them to eternal life and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and complete His temple there and uproot foreign worship from the earth and restore Heavenly worship to its position and may the Holy One, blessed is He, reign in His sovereign splendor.”

It usual rendering slips far too frequently into privileging the ethnic, oriental aspect. Not in this Thomas/Brocal version. It was played with dignity and great seriousness.

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The first of two sonatas for violoncello and piano of Johannes Brahms, Op. 38 in E-minor was written in 1861 and dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, a friend of the composer and a amateur player of cello. Brahms maintained all the time his attention and emphasis on the piano part. There exists even the hilarious story of Brahms playing the piano part so loudly to cover the cello sound of poor Gänsbacher. When he complained, Brahms simply hissed back: “You should be grateful for not being heard.”

Certainly this was not the problem of Thomas and Brocal. Their rendering was full of natural grace and collaborative interplay. This sonata, being technically quite easy, bears always a danger to play it without enthusiasm. But here we assisted to a real firework of ideas, every single melody was interwoven into the texture of the other instrument, the second scherzo movement really joyful and the last movement potent and played with enthusiasm.

The program continued with the Sonata in A major, M.8 of Cèsar Franck (1822-1890).

Franck’s sonata for violin and piano, written in 1886 and inspired by the marriage of his friend and compatriot violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and Louise Bourdeau, was from the beginning transcribed by Franck’s colleague at Paris Conservatory, cellist Jules Delsart. There are legends – or maybe even more than that – that the sonata might have been conceived for cello first. There are spare notices of Ysaÿe’s testimony that a handwritten version of cello part existed. In any case, the transcription of Delsart is a very sensitive one, never modifying the piano part and with only rare interventions versus the violin part, except logically lowering the melody line to a position suitable for a violoncello. The performance of the Thomas-Brocal duo took a very free approach, characterized by ample use of rubati and a really romantic way of thinking. None of this is really out of place in this music.

What I would have preferred in a concert would have been having more contrasts in the overall proposition. These interpreters are far too good to be confined to the limited repertoire. I could imagine the firework of, let’s say a Shostakowich sonata or any contrasting modern repertoire choice. Ms. Thomas has all the potential of a new Jaqueline du Pre. The wish remains that she will have the right to choose whatever pieces she wants to play in the future and not be confined in what is considered commercially viable. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the complete solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.