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
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
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
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
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.