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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Danses Pour Ginger Rogers

Danse lente from the five Danses pour Ginger for piano Op.163 (1937)
Eight pieces selected from Les Heures Persanes for piano Op.65 (1913-19)
La prière de l’homme from Album de Lilian Vol. 2, for piano Op.149 (1935)
Quatre nouvelles sonatines for piano Op.87 (1923-24)
Boaz Sharon (piano)
Recorded in May 21, 1983 at Sprague Hall, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
ARCOBALENO AAOC 94382 [53:06]

The Arcobaleno label have released a superb and fascinating recording of small-scale piano works entitled Danses pour Ginger Rogers. These are from the pen of maverick French composer Charles Koechlin and are played by Israeli soloist Boaz Sharon.

The descriptive title of this release Danses pour Ginger Rogers has clearly been selected by the record company for gimmicky marketing purposes but is rather misleading. It could prove slightly confusing for prospective purchasers as in fact only the first track Danse lente of the twenty four piano pieces included by Arcobaleno has come from works that Koechlin composed in recognition of the Hollywood actress, singer and dancer, Ginger Rogers.

Koechlin is a composer with a low profile and disappointingly few of his works have been recorded. Readers may wish to read more about this charming composer with an extremely complex personality and I have included biographical details of Koechlin in this review.

Born in Paris in 1867 the enigmatic and extraordinary Charles Koechlin was a prolific composer in many genres from large-scale symphonic poems to miniature solo piano works. He was a late-developer as a composer and remains relatively unknown today. I’m certain that only the most enthusiastic music-lovers will have heard any Koechlin scores other than The Jungle Book (1899-1940) cycle of five symphonic poems and The Seven Stars’ Symphony Op.132. However there has been recent interest in his works. There are now several recordings in the catalogue and more in the pipeline.

Koechlin desired to have all his scores performed at least once but would not bend away from his most individual style of composition just to obtain performances. Contrary to popular belief Koechlin did strive to gain recognition for his works and to have them accepted by publishing houses and influential conductors so as to reach the ears of as many discriminating listeners as possible. Koechlin would not alter his style of composing or change his high artistic principles for any purpose, such as to obtain commissions and certainly not for reasons of short-term popularity for mass market commerciality. This idealistic ‘ivory tower’ existence may have suited Koechlin artistically but it frequently resulted in many devastating disappointments and frequent and severe financial difficulties. However when his country chose to honour him with the Légion d’honneur he refused to accept the award which was in keeping with his spirit of independence.

Throughout Koechlin’s long composing career he retained both the love of the symphonic poem and a predilection for highly romantic and exotic subjects. Regardless of many shattering knock-backs he remained an unassuageable optimist, stating,

"To sum up in a word I have confidence in the future of my music… For not only do I think that people will recognise the value which most young composers of today place on my works, but I equally believe that the public will come to agree with them too."

Despite only sporadic interest showed in his compositions Koechlin explained that he was convinced that his works would gain in value over time, and after his death,

"Once a composer is classed as worthy of admiration, some fifty years or a hundred years after his death… then everyone becomes overwhelmed at the start of a concert in which the conductor is to ‘reveal’ the ‘newly discovered master’."

Koechlin revered the music of J.S. Bach and Fauré and also admired Mozart, Debussy, Chabrier, Gounod, Chopin, Ravel, Berloiz, Saint Saens, Liszt, Franck and Satie. Interestingly he had mixed feelings concerning Wagner and detested the music of Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. Undeniably Koechlin’s music must have infused various influences he was not a part of any stylistic school and took great care to remain original and autonomous. The popularity and the novelty value of a score held no interest for Koechlin as he was principally concerned with the enduring quality of his music. Typically Koechlin would compose several of his works simultaneously and consequently the date of many of his works can extend over several years, whilst other works he could complete in a single day.

It is clear from my researches that Koechlin had a hopeless obsessive personality and perhaps the best example is his fixation with movie stars of the early Hollywood ‘talkies’. Many readers will be familiar with his The Seven Stars’ Symphony Op.132 which consists of musical portraits of the following seven stars of the silver screen: Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jennings and Charlie Chaplin.

In respect of this release it is significant that Koechlin biographer Professor Robert Orledge believes that the composer’s smaller scale works, such as the piano pieces contained on the present Arcobaleno disc, "…are his most consistently inspired pieces even if they lack the power and breath of vision of his symphonic scores."

Danse lente from the five Danses pour Ginger for piano Op.163 No.2 (1937)

It was in 1937 after seeing the film Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that Koechlin was inspired to compose the suite of five reverential Danses pour Ginger Op.163. Danse lente is the opening track on this release which has not surprisingly been described as ’the fourth Gymnopédie of Erik Satie’. The track has captivated me and has hardly been off my CD player. The piece, a soft-focused waltz, lasts only 3:38 and is a real discovery that demonstrates Koechlin’s imagination and the influence of the French impressionist school. The haunting quality and sensuousness of the Danse lente is satisfyingly and charmingly presented by Boaz Sharon. There is no doubt that the soloist is perfectly suited to the demands of this work and it left me wanting to hear Sharon record the complete suite.

Eight pieces selected from Les Heures Persanes for piano Op.65 (1913-19)

Koechlin’s love of Arabic subjects is heard here in his suite of eight of the sixteen small scale piano pieces Les Heures Persanes Op.65 composed between 1913-19. These were inspired by the orientalism of Pierre Lôti’s novel Vers Ispahan (1904). Koechlin attempts to evoke and re-create Arabic music. He likened Les Heures Persanes to an imaginary journey to Isfahan. Koechlin loved foreign travel and it is ironic that the composer had never visited Persia although he had holidayed in Turkey and several North African countries. Clearly Koechlin was fond of Les Heures Persanes as two years after completing the suite the composer made an orchestral version of the score which has been recorded on Marco Polo.

From his polytonal period of piano writing Koechlin did not design Les Heures Persanes for virtuoso display, it is predominantly atmospheric, relaxed and dreamlike in mood. This is a Debussy-like piece where Boaz Sharon offers a genuine feeling of belief in Koechlin’s semi-improvised world; the soloist seems to be considering his next chords at random. Throughout Sharon provides the necessary sensitivity and lightness of touch in the challenging dynamics and tempo demands and successfully mixes a wide palette of colours. Particularly successful is how expertly Sharon plays Koechlin’s

Arabesques (track 6) surely a raindrop prelude with its ‘Islamic decoration’ and bravura ending and in Clair de lune sur les terraces (track 4) which includes the impression of ‘moonlight’. The unmistakable shadow of Ravel’s Ondine appears in La Paix du Soir au Cimitière (track 7), whereas, in the final piece, the gritty Derviches dans le nuit, the listener may feel he has entered a world explored by master jazz improvisers, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.

The Chandos label have recently released the complete Les Heures Persanes Op.65 played by Kathryn Stott on CHAN 9974 (editor’s note: there is also a recording by Herbert Henck on Wergo). At the time of writing I have not heard the Chandos disc although several reviews look favourably on Stott’s performance in these challenging works.

La prière de l’homme from Album de Lilian Vol. 2, for piano Op.149 No.8 (1935)

Earlier in 1934 Koechlin had seen the actress Lilian Harvey in the film Princesse à vos orders. Koechlin began a two year infatuation with Harvey, now long forgotten by the film world, and composed an amazing one hundred and thirteen works in homage to his idol. La prière de l’homme (track nine) is the last in a set of eight short and contrasting pieces composed in 1935 for various instrumental combinations entitled Album de Lilian Vol. 2, Op.149.

Inspired by the Lilian Harvey film Quick, the chorale La prière de l’homme is an elegant and meditative statement with melodic memorability and a strong Satie-like feel. The opening bars touch on Messiaen’s contemplative meditations and yet there is a twist as these are almost gospel/jazz chords and defy categorisation. With refinement of tone and colour Boaz Sharon beautifully realises the work’s expressive possibilities with a real sense of belief in this fascinating music.

Quatre nouvelles sonatines for piano Op.87 (1923-24)

Arcobaleno on the CD cover call the these four works ‘Novellas Sonatines Françaises’ which is not the correct title. Maybe Arcobaleno are confusing these works with Koechlin’s Op.60 Quatre sonatines francaises for piano duet. The correct title is Quatre nouvelles sonatines Op.87 for piano. These are tonal works written in an accessible style linked to his French folksong roots that the composser thought would prove familiar to listeners.

Koechlin adopts a clearly more focused style in these fifteen delicate sketches which are brimming with French elegance of line and purity. French folk-melody mixed with the lucidity of Couperin and most beautifully wrought too. Koechlin does not endow the movements with French titles, but in every other way this is Koechlin’s very own Tombeau de Couperin. Boaz Sharon whose phrasing is never less than intelligent throughout, really flourishing in the attractive Fauré-like second movement Sicilienne of the third Sonatine. Sharon skilfully gets to the heart of Koechlin’s intentions, discovering a wide range of pleasurable emotions.

The sound of this Arcobaleno release is fairly warm and clear. There is some slight blurring around the edges in forte passages, however this can be kept in check by not having the volume turned up too high; which is no hardship with these pieces. The notes on the CD case state that the recordings were made back in 1983. Although we are not told I suspect that this material has been previously released, perhaps several times on different labels, over the twenty year period.

I wish to thank Professor Robert Orledge for his kind permission to use the above quotations from his definitive biography of Charles Koechlin: ‘Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) His Life and Works’ written by Robert Orledge. Paperback published by Routledge (1989) ISBN 3718606097 & Hardcover published by Harwood ISBN 3718648989.

The beauty of this album is its appeal to the lover of Debussy and Satie but can be placed comfortably alongside Zbigniew Preisner’s 10 Easy Pieces For Piano or those ‘cool jazz’ albums from Davis, Baker, Coltrane, Parker et al that are currently enjoying a revival.

Koechlin admirers will relish this sterling release from Arcobaleno and I couldn’t think of a more perfect recording for those wishing to explore the sound-world of this wonderful composer for the first time.

Michael Cookson


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