Cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière breaks down the brilliance of the cello writing by women of the French Romantic period ahead of a performance as part of the 11th Palazzetto Bru Zane Paris Festival


Cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière performs with pianist Théo Fouchenneret © Matteo De Fina

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Henriette Renié - Sonata for piano and cello

Renié is said to have inspired composers such as Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné. While playing her magnificent sonata, I actually encountered references to Franck, Grieg, and Brahms! It even quotes Franck’s A major Violin Sonata, using its main theme with strong chromaticism throughout.

It’s a rich and complete piece. Her harmonic language is particularly virtuosic; I’ve rarely encountered so many unexpected key changes. The very beginning of the first movement, for example, explodes with a kaleidoscope of colours and emotions!

Lili Boulanger - D’un soir triste

I first performed this programme for Palazzetto Bru Zane back in 2022; this piece was actually my first time performing music by Lili Boulanger thanks to this version she created, as the original was written for piano trio. The title translates to ’Of a Sad Evening’ and was created shortly before Boulanger’s passing. It is also said to be a companion piece to D’un Matin de Printemps (’Of a Spring Morning’).

The harmonies are truly dissonant, creating a constant sense of unease. I wonder if the piano embodies the overall sadness of the title, while the cello represents her voice or consciousness. It’s hard to articulate exactly – the best way to understand is to play it!

Mel Bonis - Sonata for cello and piano

Bonis studied alongside Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné and was tutored by César Franck. What’s most striking about her writing, particularly for strings, is that the recitative sections are particularly noteworthy, as is the overall freedom of form throughout the sonata. It almost feels like a fantasy piece!

The writing for both instruments reminds me of Mendelssohn, with a virtuosic piano part accompanying a singing cello. The slow movement is exquisite from beginning to end, with its seemingly endless phrases.

Nadia Boulanger - Three Pieces for cello and piano

Both Boulanger sisters share a purity of expression, without unnecessary embellishments. However, Nadia’s work stands out for its references to older musical styles, particularly choral, mediaeval, and Gregorian chant.

The second piece, a perfect canon, is likely my favourite of the three. It feels ageless!

Victor Julien-Laferrière performs this programme, ‘Belle Epoque’, alongside pianist Théo Fouchenneret on Tuesday 4 June, as part of the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s 11th Paris Festival, which is dedicated to rediscovering and promoting the music of this rich heritage and runs from 3 to 26 June 2024. Tickets are available here, and more information on the Festival can be found here.

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