The valuable series of CDs from the enlightened French publishing
house Actes Sud is beginning to makes its way beyond France. In the UK
it is now distributed by Harmonia Mundi and beyond that its CDs can be
tracked down via the Montpellier orchestra's website.
I have already referred to other Actes-Sud discs in
my recent review of their recording of Suk's Asrael - a performance
that warmed up after a rather flaccid first movement.
The notes in the present case are entirely in French
with no translations. The jewel box is forgotten for a change and instead,
and this is becoming something of a French hallmark, we get a stiff
card folder into which the booklet notes are glued and two CD mounting
stems on fold-outs. The poems are printed in the booklet - again only
in French. The cover and end designs are drawn from details of Henri
Rousseau's 'Nègre attaqué par un jaguar'.
It is bizarre to see that this set is sourced from
an analogue tape - perhaps a peculiarity of Radio France tape stock
or equipment in Montpellier at the time (only four years ago!).
This set is up against forbidding competition in the
shape of a BMG double (two CDs for the price of one) - Radio SO, Berlin/Zinman.
Segerstam's recording of the Livre (Marco Polo 8.223484, rec.
1985 - a single CD at 72.47) is not directly comparable as it excludes
the three vocal movements. Zinman on BMG 74321 84596-2 is an all-digital
effort (rec. 1993) which includes all seven movements of the Livre
plus James Judd conducting the Seven Stars Symphony (only symphonic
in the same strained pictorial sense as Rubinstean's Ocean symphony!)
and two slighter works. The BMG is difficult to pass up as a bargain
in face of Actes-Sud's two CD set offering only the Livre. The
Zinman Livre minus the Seven Stars was previously RCA
09026 61955 2. Zinman presents the tone poems in strict opus number
order while both Bedford and Segerstam seems to have given some thought
to shaping the seven pieces into a cogent narrative. Of course you can
programme the pieces in any order you wish. The sense of rounded cogency
comes across very well with the sequence starting with the Loi
and ending with the Night movement of La Course de printemps
- a pattern followed by Segerstam and Bedford.
Loi de la Jongle: With the tempo of a
priestly march and rough-toned brass and imposing tam-tam strokes this
music calls up images of some cavernous stone temple festooned in lianas.
Bedford is the quickest of the three at 6.40 compared with the 9.51
of Segerstam and 9.14 of Zinman. Bedford does not seem unduly rushed
despite shaving one third of the time off the competition.
Les Bandar-Log is about the same length (16
mins) in each of the three versions. Its depiction of the gibbering
chaotic monkey race is an opportunity for Koechlin to cock a snook at
the then trendiness of the 12-tone school and the atonalists. The depiction
of the inarticulate, dysjunct and chattering is preceded by music clearly
related to the Loi movement. I was intrigued to hear, among the
intimations of ‘modernism’, music that seemed to be the mine from which
Messiaen drew inspiration for his Turangalila Symphony (5.15).
At the close the music dissolves into a quiet niente in which
the orchestra's high violins seem slightly insecure; less so with Zinman’s
Berlin orchestra. By comparison with the Actes-Sud, the BMG recording
is in noticeably closer perspective and hints of Stravinsky (solo winds
from Le Sacre) first caught in wispy form in Loi are now
much more concrete. The Segerstam is slightly less well recorded than
the Zinman and lacks its consistent animation. The music was written
at a time coinciding with the invasion of France and while it lacks
overtly tragic overtones I wonder whether any of this laceratingly sardonic
music was aimed at the awful pomp of the Wehrmacht. I cannot imagine
this music finding favour with the Vichy authorities; its lampooning
of ‘degenerate’ styles is a mite too convincing..
The three poems Op. 18 are the earliest works in the
cycle. The first two poems include a prominent part for mezzo soprano.
Iris Vermillion seems to have cornered the market as she is the singer
in both the Actes-Sud and BMG sets. Berceuse Phoque has the sort
of quiet cyclical piano filigree you hear in Canteloube over which Vermillion's
operatically-fit voice gently undulates in prophecy of Gershwin's Summertime.
Although more closely recorded by BMG she is in better voice in the
Bedford version - the digital ‘floodlighting’ did not suit her voice
quite so well as the analogue treated it in Montpellier. This track
has to be a natural for any Classic FM style radio station looking to
freshen its playlist. Put it in a similar artlessly lovely category
as Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileira No. 5, Rachmaninov''s Vocalise,
Sibelius's Luonnotar and any of the more somnolent Canteloube
The Chanson de Nuit is a quick and hunted brevity.
Here Ralf Lukas (Zinman) is to be preferred over Vincent Le Texier.
Lukas is in much better voice and Vermillion seems on top of the role.
The downside is that the BMG sound lacks mystery. The long Chant
de Kala Nag (the tame elephant who sings from captivity his lament
of yearning for the forests) is sung by Jan Botha - a dark toned tenor
with a real coffee-baritonal quality and an urgency to his singing.
Bedford has the pastel shaded Jacque Trussel and the quickly caught
triumphs at 1.50 are better caught in the Bedford version. These three
poems date from the turn of the century and are of a decidedly exotic-romantic
mode not so very far removed from Delibes and Massenet. The chorus touches
in the colours of these three pieces.
After the Op. 18 excursion to the opulent French Orient
the Meditation brings us back to 1936. Purun-Bhagat, by the way,
is a devout pilgrim once a holder of high power who now contemplates
solitary serenity (is it any surprise that this music was written amid
the Chamounix mountains?). The work is kith and kin to Delius's Song
of the High Hills and Novak's In the Tatras (there are no
avant-garde infractions this time). Those long held pp high notes
again cause the Montpellier strings some slight strain which is better
handled by the Berliners even though they are recorded more analytically
- lacking the analogue mystery of the Radio France tape. Both versions
link seamlessly back to the Loi and the introduction of Bandar-Log.
Segerstam's recording team make a better job of catching the half-lit
secrets and serene contemplative leanings of the piece although here
too they must give place to Bedford's performance.
The Spring Running (La Course) was written
between 1911 and 1929. It is the longest of all seven of the pieces
and finishes the Bedford and Segerstam versions: Bedford 29.19 (about
28.12, shorn of applause), Zinman 31.54, Segerstam 31.21. Its mood range
encompasses festivity found in Ravel and Markevich, as well as serenity.
In this respect Segerstam is less convincing than Bedford. The pell-mell
rush reads across to another headlong vernal work of the 1920s: Frank
Bridge's Enter Spring (and the second of his Two Jefferies
Poems) as well as John Foulds' April-England. The score is
in four segments (not separately tracked on Actes-Sud or Marco Polo):
Spring in the Forest, Mowgli, The Running, Night.
There are discreet parts for organ and piano. This portrayal of the
irresistible rush of spring tells of Mowgli's sorrowing departure from
forest childhood to manhood and his separation from Bagheera and Baloo.
The Running is the last desperate and doomed attempt to drive
out from Mowgli's bloodstream the stirrings of adult emotions and inhibition.
Segerstam handles this all very well. The feathery analogue gauze of
the Bedford set helps with the mystery and his Mowgli is preferable
especially to Zinman who eludes the rapturous intensity of abandon found
in Bedford and Segerstam.
The occasional cough and clatter (e.g. CD2 tr.2 23.12)
and, of course, the applause mark out the Bedford set. As ever with
music that speaks quietly and with serenity there are coughs and shuffles
among the audience in Bedford's live version. In exchange you receive
the ambience and edge-of-seat concentration of a live event without
There is much Koechlin yet to be recorded. I hope that
someone will record for us the host of hardly known Koechlin orchestral
works including Vers La Voute Etoilée (Towards the
starry skies) (1933) and The Symphony of Hymns (1938). Future
projects for the Montpellier orchestra?
Allowing for the minor fallibilities of the Montpellier
orchestra and of a live concert with audience participation of various
sorts, this French analogue version is sensitive and mysterious and
has the glorious Ms Vermillion in imperious voice. The BMG double is
difficult not to prefer given its generous coupling and studio perfection.
If however you are captivated by the Koechlin work you will need to
have this Bedford version which is informed by the imaginative energy
of a conductor whose sympathy for Kipling's ‘Jungle Book’ has already
been amply demonstrated by various concert performances of Percy Grainger's
own quite different Jungle Book cycle.