The grand old building of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgravia was the venue for tonight’s concert, where renowned duo Clara Cernat (violin) and Thierry Huillet (piano) played a programme of musical masterpieces, with works by Enescu, Saint-Saens, Gershwin and many more. The concert was dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Colectiv Club tragedy in Bucharest, crowds gathering outside the building lighting candles and waving the Romanian flag to show their respects.
Part of the Enescu Concerts Series presented by the Romanian Cultural Institute, the evening suitably began with George Enescu’s Impromptu Concertant, a work composed in 1903 bearing the characteristics of his early works. Using different alcoholic drinks as comic metaphors for pieces in the programme, Thierry described this work as ‘white wine – sweet, but not too sweet, reminiscent of flowers and romance’. It’s clear Enescu was deeply in love when he wrote it, and Cernat evoked this feeling with strong, rich vibratos and precise intonation on the incredibly high pitched notes. Huillet contained the piano’s sound well during these moving violin passages, allowing it to answer with equally heartfelt replies as if the two instruments were lovers entwined in conversation.
The duo then treated us to La Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens (1874). The piece is written as a poem for orchestra, but was originally an art song for voice and piano, based on a text by poet Henri Cazalis. According to legend, Death appears at midnight every year on Halloween and calls forth the dead to dance to his fiddle. The music grows until the climax where it suddenly stops and a rooster crows at dawn to announce the daylight – enacted by Cernat’s violin – when they must return to their graves till the following year. The duo accentuated the quirky nature of this waltz with its eerie yet comical aspects, using the most precise articulation in the technically taxing repeated notes on the piano and wild violin passages, remaining throughout together perfectly in time.
Next came Jules Massenet’s ‘Meditation de Thais’, a symphonic intermezzo from the opera Thais, written for solo violin and orchestra – Massenet having been one of Enescu’s composition teachers, again tying well into the programme. Premiered in 1894 in Paris, this entr’acte comes between the scenes of Act II and represents a time of reflection following the encounter of Thais and Athanael – respectively an Alexandrian courtesan and a Cenobite monk trying to convert her to Christianity (before owning that his impulses are impure). Considered one of the great encore pieces and much performed by world-class violin soloists, it was dubbed by Huillet a ‘high-level sweet white wine’. Cernat and Huillet created a poignant sound together, the withdrawn, tender sections crescendoing into magnificent, ethereal fortes, filling every corner of the ornately furnished room.
As well as being recognised for his piano prowess, Thierry Huillet also has a major career as a composer and his transcription for violin and piano of Hector Berlioz’s ‘Un bal’ from the Symphonie Fantastique was the next piece in this diverse programme. Composed in 1830 when Berlioz was just 20 years old, this piece is one of the most important pieces of the early Romantic period. ‘Un bal’, described as ‘champagne/strong alcohol’, is the second movement of this Symphony and is essentially a waltz. Thierry’s transcription was made to sound very orchestral: all the colours and instruments could be heard in just the violin and piano with powerful, deep chords sounding like cellos or brass and certain sparse, high pitched melodies on the violin suggesting woodwind. Paganini, hearing this symphony, called Berlioz a ‘genius of the 19th century’, and at the end went onstage and fell to his knees. Cernat explained how when she and Huillet once performed this piece themselves together, a 9 year old boy came up and bowed to her, just as Paganini had to Berlioz.
A couple of pieces later, the audience was transported from the 19th into the 20th century with Maurice Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’, a rhapsodic composition commissioned by and dedicated to Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, great-niece of the influential violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim. ‘Ravel was a French composer,’ said Huillet, ‘yet this piece is a good Romanian wine with vanilla, leather, and deep, strong aromas’ . The famous violin introduction was played powerfully and dramatically by Cernat with violent, raw vibrato and a deep, rich sound, captivating the audience as they listened on. Ravel dreams of Hungary and Romania and Cernat’s violin evoked this longing with cries and shouts on the violin. Fast scalic passages and percussive pizzicato – together with sonorous piano – made for an avant-garde performance of the piece.
The finale of tonight’s programme was another transcription by Huillet, of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Written in 1924 for solo piano and jazz band – 2 years before Enescu wrote his 3rd sonata – Rhapsody in Blue combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. The piece was summed up tonight by Huillet as ‘Good old whiskey, perhaps a Bourbon’. Clara told the audience how she loved the work so much she begged her husband Huillet to transcribe it for her, calling this transcription – aptly it turned out – her ‘diamond’. The violin opened with the famous, sensual tune, the piano entering with jazzy, crunchy chords underneath. Throughout, the two instruments took turns with the melody creating a spectrum of orchestral colours, the famous syncopated rhythms and classical-versus-jazz elements producing an atmosphere of fun. Nearly 20 minutes in length, the piece climaxed with volume and passion, and ended with Cernat’s piercing, rapturous violin.
The audience gave a standing ovation to the duo: a fitting end to Clara Cernat’s and Thierry Huillet’s deeply moving concert.
This concert by Clara Cernat and Thierry Huillet was part of the ongoing programme of events at the Romanian Cultural Institute, Belgravia, London.