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Classical Album of the Week: Franco-Belgian Cellist Camille Thomas's Voice of Hope

September 21, 2020. "Beauty will save the world." Those are the words of cellist Camille Thomas, whose new album, Voice of Hope, speaks to this very idea. This album concept, at first glance, might have been at risk of feeling overly saccharine. It turns out, it’ll take no more than nine seconds before the opening Kaddish by Ravel pulls you in and you know this is no lightweight endeavor from Thomas.

This is not a sweet, innocent beauty, but one of visceral yearning, colored with mesmerizing, sometimes hauntingly beautiful soundscapes.

The central work of the album is a brand new one — a cello concerto by Turkish composer Fazil Say entitled Never Give Up. We often hear Say on WRTI as a solo pianist, but here we experience him as one the world’s leading 21st-century composers.

He describes his new piece as an "outcry for freedom and peace," a plea to the world to end violence following the 2015 and 2016 attacks on Paris and Istanbul. Inspired by Stravinsky and premiered in 2018 in the same Parisian venue as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring more than 100 years ago, Say’s Never Give Up certainly carries with it a Rite-like fire and intensity, though it never becomes chaotic or harsh.

In fact, the opening of the second movement sees Thomas playing with a gorgeous, breathy tone, and her cello actually begins to sound like a duduk, an Armenian flute — truly a cavitating moment. The third and final movement, “Song of Hope,"then leaps jubilantly into motion and continues on with a good dose of swagger, amidst an atmospheric backdrop full of the flush, flutter and birdsong of the outdoors. Definitely a piece you could find yourself going back to again and again, and keep discovering more each time.

For those who are hankering for a familiar tune, there’s plenty to go around elsewhere on this album. Many of those are works originally for the voice. Thomas explains “I’ve always been fascinated by the raw, physical emotion that a voice can convey, and it goes far beyond any form of intellectual comprehension.

With each note I produce on my instrument, I have always tried to reproduce a voice, one that sings, talks, murmurs... a voice that shouts and loves.” No surprise then that she covers several operatic arias, here adapted for cello and orchestra, such as Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima”, Bellini’s “Casta Diva” and Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” and also includes selections from Dvo?ák’s ever-beloved "Songs My Mother Taught Me".

Thomas delivers this, her second release on the Deutsche Grammophon label, alongside musical colleagues very much on her home turf — the Brussels Philharmonic and their French music director Stéphane Denève.

Hear Camille Thomas and Stéphane Denève discuss the recording of Never Give Up: