By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Despite a heralded recording career that spans three decades and 20 acclaimed albums, from Baroque to modern, solo to orchestral, French concert cellist and educator Anne Gastinel had not explored Polish composer Frédéric Chopin’s chamber works on record—until now.
“I have always liked Chopin’s music,” saysGastinel. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve listened to his piano works. But I didn’t dive into his chamber music until late.”
The centerpiece of Chopin (Naïve), the latest new collaboration with concert pianist Claire Désert, is Chopin’s iconic Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65, one of the repertoire’s showiest showpieces. The elegant album also includes the Introduction and Polonaise brillante arranged by the French cellist and pedagogue Maurice Gendron; and the Grand Duo concertant, a work jointly composed by Chopin and his friend the French cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme. Those tracks are bookended by two of Chopin’s Nocturnes for piano, arranged by cellists David Popper (Op. 9 No. 2 in E-flat major) and Gregor Piatigorsky (No. 20 in C-sharp minor).
The album showcases Gastinel’s gorgeous tone, considerable restraint, and almost supernatural grasp of lyricism. Gastinel, a former child prodigy and winner of several international competitions, performs and records on a 1690 Testore cello. Residing in Lyon, France, near the Swiss border, she has taught since 2003 at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance of Lyon, while winning acclaim for numerous recordings. In 2008, the French government named her a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit.
The chance to rehearse and record during the Covid lockdown proved therapeutic. “Playing and recording with Claire is always a joy,” Gastinel says. “Over time we have become friends, and sharing music together is a no-brainer. This always happens cooperatively and with good humor—without ego and simply. As with all our recordings, we played a lot, exchanged a lot, and searched and let our instincts, our desires, speak for the moment. I think we wanted to immerse ourselves in music even more at the time, because we recorded in the middle of Covid when we were unable to perform any concerts. We needed it!”
What led you to record these particular works at this time?
First, Claire and I wanted to approach this repertoire in concert, in order to get to the heart of this music. Then, quite naturally, we wanted to record it, as if to keep track of this musical journey.
The album includes Chopin’s iconic Polonaise brillante. Why did you choose the Gendron arrangement?
I played the original version several times. Then I turned to the version of Gendron, an immense artist I have always admired. I liked his version so much, maybe because he gives the cello the best part. Indeed, I find this version more balanced between the two instruments. In the original version, the piano expresses itself above all, both in the melody and in the virtuosity. In the Gendron version, the cello is as fast and whimsical as the piano. And I have to say, I’m having a lot of fun in this territory.
What advice would you offer a young cellist about playing the Polonaise?
Have fun! Even if the great virtuosity of this piece requires great work!
These works share connections to some of the greatest cellists of all time: Popper, Piatigorsky, Gendron, Franchomme. How do these musicians speak through these arrangements?
I like the idea that great artists like Popper, Piatigorsky, Gendron, and Franchomme have participated in this record, in a certain way. Because, once again, when we talk about Chopin, we think piano. I wanted this album to be also about Chopin as a composer for cello! And their arrangements are so successful. Each has its own particularities, as well as an obvious common point: the will to merge the two instruments.
Chopin was influenced by Italian opera, and these works reflect a bel canto quality. How do you prepare yourself to honor that legacy?
Cello is the ideal instrument for this. I didn’t have to do anything different. The cello sings naturally and Chopin knew it.
The Cello Sonata particularly is known for its beautiful Largo movement. How did you approach this work?
The Largo of the sonata is a pure wonder of sensitivity. I especially wanted to keep a very simple approach. I think the beauty of the text speaks for itself. I did not want to add unnecessary pathos, but rather propose something purified.
The recording is bookended by two Nocturnes. What attracted you to Nos. 2 and 20?
The two chosen nocturnes are particularly close to my heart. They are memories of childhood and friendships. I wanted to play them myself, in these versions.
You studied at the National Musical Conservatory in Paris with, among others, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Tortelier, and János Starker. How are their lessons reflected in your work?
I had the chance to meet and work with great masters. They brought me a lot, each in very different ways. It has enriched me enormously, both humanly and musically. As a professor myself, I am even more aware of the impact and generosity they have had on and with me. Now, I try to do that as well with my students.