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A personal pilgrimage

by Rob Barnett

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The world of classical record labels is thronged with characters. Each company has its own distinctive tang and flavour. The plebeian at one extreme; the aristocratic at the other. Timpani is a comparatively small French label with its roots struck deep into connoisseur territory.

The label fanfares its status at many levels. Leafing through its catalogue you will be hard put to find much in the way of Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart. Its accent is emphatically declared through its Gallic allegiance to Ropartz, Magnard, Honegger, Vierne, Pierné, Cras and Alkan. However it by no means suffers from nationalist myopia; witness their discs of Martinů, Bloch, Busoni and Furtwängler.

What of its design decisions? These have been unerringly well judged and consistent. The rare excesses (for example the odd-ball Alkan chamber CD cover) simply throw into sharper relief the restraint and astute eye of the discs’ architects. The predominance of the colour white extends to the choice of cases and this serves to make the discs stand out on the crowded shelves of FNAC, Tower, HMV and the rest.

Documentation is thorough and satisfyingly full. Translations into English are provided as are the sung texts. Discographical details are provided.

Their various series transect Europe’s musical treasury at various levels. The La Mélodie Française series encompasses the songs of Cras, Honegger, Poulenc, Sacre, Emmanuel and Vierne amongst others. They complement and delightfully vie with the chanson series of Maguelone and Hyperion. The composer series extend horizontally to take in the songs, piano music, orchestral music and chamber music of Jean Cras and Louis Vierne. These lines cut a dashing swathe through the annals of the grievously neglected and the unjustly slighted.

One might get the impression that Timpani are overly preoccupied with what we might call the French musical renaissance but look then at two illustrious contemporary series: multiple discs of Maurice Ohana and Iannis Xenakis.

The label is fresh-faced - a creature of the 1990s yet it has not turned its back on historical recoridngs. Rather forgotten in their lists is the four disc set of recordings from 78s made by l’Orchestre des Concert Lamoureux conducted by Albert Wolff. Collectors active in the historical field and obsessed with Stokowski and Furtwängler please note. Perhaps Timpani might look at reviving French 78s by Monteux, Martinon and Baudo.

In many of these discs François Kerdoncuff and Alexis Galpérine are constant, trusted and perceptive presences. Also among the Timpani roll-call we find the brilliant Dong-Suk Kang (who has made it onto the supra-national stage with recordings for Naxos and BIS) and the splendid but mystifyingly under-recorded Marie-Catherine Girod.

Let me end by making a few recommendations bearing in mind that I have not heard the entire Timpani catalogue.

Operatic buffs with a taste for gaunt drama rooted in lyricism would do well to hunt down the opera Le Pays by Guy-Ropartz: wonderful freshly bloomed singing from Timpani regular Mireille Delunsch. I wish the same company could tackle Rutland Boughton’s music-drama The Queen of Cornwall. The same company also offers us the Ropartz chamber music shining in Breton hues - dazzling and subtle. Cras is perhaps a little more exotic - a Breton through and through. The Melodie Française series is extremely collectible and musically rewarding.

Furtwänglerians ready to open their souls to his creative side will be surprised by the startling power of his two epic violin sonatas and the Piano Quintet. I was startled by how beautiful and powerful this music is. The chamber music and the solo piano music of Vierne is certainly worth seeking out - often deeply moving music from a composer the trajectory of whose life touched so often on betrayal and tragedy. The Xenakis series is praised to the skies by my colleagues - similarly the Ohana discs.

One of my pieces would not be complete without the usual hopelessly unrealistic invocation. Accordingly let me implore Timpani to return to Ropartz with the Liège or Strasbourg orchestras and set down the complete Ropartz symphonies. The Fourth and Fifth symphonies are in the most clamant need of a recording and collectors need to slake their curiosity on the first two symphonies of this Breton giant. Also ambitious beyond most means is a plea for a recording of Lazzari’s Puccinian opera La Lépreuse and Louis Aubert’s La Forêt Bleue (an analogue to the fairytale atmosphere of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye). While we are on the subject of under-represented French composers we need orchestral collections of the works of Bonnal, Witkowski and Aubert (the latter not overlapping the Marco Polo anthology please). Oh and while we are at it - how about Timpani collecting the rights to the Opès-3D double set of Marie-Catherine Girod playing all four Bax sonatas and showing the British hegemony how to project this master-dramatist of transient beauty.

I can think of few more glowing accolades than to compare Timpani’s excellence and their stimulating audacity with Lyrita Recorded Edition. The difference is that Timpani are here and available now, securely accessible and ready to add strength to your collection and reward, challenge and pleasure to your musical listening.

Rob Barnett

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