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June 10, 2011 5:16 pm

Some like it tough

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Jean-Guihen Queyras

Passion: Jean-Guihen Queyras in Edinburgh last month

For most of us, work is a means to make a living. We are lucky if we enjoy it but if the payslip stopped arriving, we would probably put our feet up or look for another job. French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras falls into a different category. He belongs to the lucky few for whom work is pure pleasure, and he is never happier than when the music is difficult and demanding.

“I like to have something to bite on, even if it’s very tough,” he says without a trace of smugness.

Over the coming weeks Queyras will have plenty to chew on. At the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk this month he premieres a new work by young British composer Christian Mason and plays the three Britten Suites for Cello – part of a day-long tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich, the late Russian cellist who formed a deep friendship with Britten and became an Aldeburgh regular.

There will be more solo cello at the end of July, when Queyras performs the six Bach Suites in a single day at London’s Wigmore Hall. As if that weren’t enough, he plays the Dvorák Cello Concerto at the Proms in London, gives a recital at the Edinburgh Festival and hosts his own festival in southern France, the Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence in his home town of Forcalquier – all in the space of a few weeks.

Marathon man? Well, he did say he liked it tough. Queyras elaborates: “Music is my passion and my job. That’s what I live for.” A slight, soft-spoken 44-year-old who could easily pass for 10 years younger, Queyras is no stranger to the world’s leading concert platforms. But only in the past couple of years has he emerged among the top handful of cellists. He spent much of his early career playing for the Ensemble Intercontemporain, France’s leading contemporary music group, and has premiered solo works by György Kurtag and Jonathan Harvey.

Yet you would hardly call him a new music specialist. He has just recorded a CD of Vivaldi concertos and, as a longstanding member of the Arcanto Quartet, he is equally at home with Schubert. We often think of the cello as an instrument that expresses sadness but it is suppleness and soulfulness that define Queyras’s style.

If the name sounds exotic – Queyras comes from a region in the French Alps, Guihen from an 11th-century French saint – his background is even more so. He was born to French parents in Montreal, raised in Algeria and southern France, and trained at conservatoires in Lyon, Freiburg and New York. He now lives in Germany with his wife and three daughters, and teaches at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule.

I first heard him at the 2009 Manchester International Festival, playing Bach in an acoustical shell devised by the architect Zaha Hadid – a feat he repeated when the shell was recreated in Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi. His deft, almost minstrel-like way with the music made a big impact, re-inforced by the recording he made of the Suites around the same time. The achievement was all the greater for the way Queyras coped with Hadid’s asymmetrical space, surrounded by cloth fabric that made for an extremely dry sound. “You needed to sit on the platform for a while before you found a centre,” he recalls.

The fact that Queyras did not duck the challenge is further evidence of his “tough” credo. So is his readiness to play Britten at Aldeburgh on a day commemorating the greatest cellist in living memory. Does he not feel intimidated by the idea of trying to fill the Russian’s shoes? “Yes!” he exclaims, “but it’s also incredibly inspiring. Like all cellists of my generation, Rostropovich was my god. I was given his recording of the Britten Suites when I was 14 but it wasn’t until three years later that I started to learn them. Rostropovich liked close microphones, so the recording gave incredible proximity to the listener. I just wanted to climb into the loudspeakers.”

So what does this music tell us about Rostropovich’s hands and sensibility? Queyras says Britten was a rare example of a composer who could tailor his music to the interpreter’s personality. “Rostropovich is very ‘present’ in the first Suite – not just the dramatic aspect, which calls for his sense of tension and full-bodied sound but the virtuosity and incredible velocity of the moto perpetuo at the end. The first movement of the second Suite is very declamato, just like a Russian declaiming his text.”

And the Third Suite? Queyras says that although it has material based on Russian themes, “it is the least Rostropovichian. It’s the only one he didn’t record. I haven’t listened to his recording [of the first two Suites] for a long time but I still hear his sound. It never bothered me to be impregnated by his playing. I don’t have his hands, his life, so it’s bound to be different – but I don’t set out to make it different. The important thing is that the music is fabulously written for the instrument. Britten didn’t write something that only Rostropovich could play.”

Queyras is no stranger to Aldeburgh; he played Britten’s Cello Symphony there three years ago. He befriended Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the festival’s artistic director, during their years in the Ensemble Intercontemporain and worked as his assistant at the Paris Conservatoire. He describes Aimard as “like a big brother, a source of inspiration. He has this once-in-a-lifetime gift to make different repertoires relate to each other in a way that makes everyone feel they have learned something.”

Much the same could be said of Queyras. But it’s not only the Aimard connection that brings him to the Suffolk coast. He describes the Aldeburgh environment as calm and soothing, “where the spirit [of Britten] is incarnated. Maybe it’s because of Aldeburgh’s ‘preserved’ environment but the place is very evocative of Britten’s music, quite introverted. There’s an interaction between nature, the sea and your inside, so you can’t help going into [a mood of] reflection. I grew up in such an environment in the middle of nowhere [at Forcalquier, Provence], and that’s why I have my festival there. It’s a chance to escape ‘the business’, to get resourced. The trouble is, when I’m in Aldeburgh or Forcalquier, I’m always extremely busy, playing so many things. But when you give out a lot, you also get a lot.”

For Jean-Guihen Queyras’ appearances at the Aldeburgh Festival this month, see www.aldeburgh.co.uk

Video preview of events at this year's festival at www.ft.com/arts-extra

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