One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Le Livre de la jungle (1899-1950) [82.58]
1. La Loi de la jungle - poème symphonique Op. 175 (1934) [6.40]
2. Les Bandar-Log - poème symphonique Op. 176 (1939-40) [16.19]
3. Berceuse phoque - mezzo-soprano and choir (1899-1904) [5.00]
4. Chanson de nuite dans la jungle - mezzo-soprano, baritone and choir (1899-1904) [3.18]
5. Chant de Kala Nag - tenor and choir (1899-1904) [8.15]
6. La Méditation de Purun Bhagat - poème symphonique Op. 159 (1936) [14.04]
7. La Course de printemps - poème symphonique Op. 95 (1925-27) [29.19]
Iris Vermillion (mezzo)
Jacque Trussel (ten)
Vincent le Texier (bar)
Choeur des Opéras de Montpellier
Orchestra Philharmonique de Languedoc-Roussillon/Steuart Bedford
rec. live, 22 July 1998, Opéra Berlioz-Le Corum ADD
[2CDs: 39.35+43.23]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

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 arrangements.

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 editing.

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.

Rob Barnett

Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.