The Hänssler Classic label have released a
superb and fascinating recording of two large- scale symphonic poems
from the pen of maverick French composer Charles Koechlin. There
are only a handful of recordings of his works available although
there is currently a resurgence of interest and several new releases
of Koechlin’s large output have been recorded with others in the
Born in Paris in 1867, Charles Koechlin was a most
prolific composer in many genres from large-scale symphonic poems
to miniature solo piano works. Koechlin was a late-developer as
a composer and remains relatively unknown today with the exception
of The Seven Stars’ Symphony Op.132 (1933) and the massive
The Jungle Book (1899-1940) -a cycle of five symphonic poems
that includes the work La course de printemps (The spring
running) included on this Hänssler release.
Koechlin would not alter his style of composing
or change his high artistic principles to obtain commissions and
certainly not for reasons of short-term mass market appeal. 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. This idealistic ‘ivory tower’ existence may have suited
Koechlin artistically but it frequently resulted in devastating
disappointments and financial difficulties.
Koechlin revered the music of J.S. Bach and Fauré
and also admired other composers including Mozart, Debussy, Chabrier,
Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Franck and Satie. Undeniably Koechlin’s
music bears various influences although he was not part of any stylistic
school and took great care to remain original and independent.
Throughout Koechlin’s long composing career he
retained both the love of the symphonic poem and a predilection
for romantic, oriental and exotic subjects. He easily developed
passions such as those with Hollywood movies and movie-stars, passions
which often turned into obsessions. For example in 1934 Koechlin
saw the actress Lilian Harvey in the film Princesse à
vos ordres. Captivated by her performance Koechlin began a two
year infatuation with Harvey, during which time he composed an amazing
one hundred and thirteen works in homage to his idol.
There were many shattering knock-backs in Koechlin’s
career and regardless of these he remained remarkably positive,
"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 shown 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
There is a real power and breadth of vision in
these symphonic scores and the La course de printemps and
Le buisson ardent are fine examples of the multi-layered
quality of Koechlin’s music. Tellingly the conductor of this set,
Heinz Holliger, described Koechlin as an, "alchemist of
sound". There is a general avoidance of dense and imprecise
sound combinations instead Koechlin achieves transparency throughout
a wide spectrum of colour and images giving the sense of multi-perspectives
The symphonic poem La course de printemps,
(The spring running) Op.95 forms part of The Jungle Book,
a set of five symphonic poems that Koechlin composed at various
intervals between 1899 and 1940. The Jungle Book is intended
to evoke the story of Rudyard Kipling’s various jungle characters,
in particular the man-cub Mowgli, raised in the forest by a she-wolf.
La course de printemps is a single movement work lasting
in excess of half an hour. It was the work in which Koechlin made
his first use of advanced harmonics. In it appear his most highly
developed ideas. The performing order of the five symphonic-poems
that comprise The Jungle Book collection is not set in tablets
of stone. However when the first complete performance of the work
was given in 1946 Koechlin programmed La course de printemps
as the fifth and final movement.
Conductor Heinz Holliger and his RSO Stuttgart
are in fine form throughout. Initially the frequent thuds and rustles
of the live performance were rather intrusive, however the proceedings
soon settled down. Holliger allows the necessary freedom for the
score’s wide-ranging phrases and achieves a broad canvas of expression
and freshness of inspiration. I had no problem experiencing Koechlin’s
evocative atmosphere of a hot, heavy and steamy jungle which is
sometimes enchanting and sometimes frightening.
There are a couple of alternative versions of this
work that may be considered. The best of the two is the reading
by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman on RCA
Red Seal 74321 845 962. Despite some minor noise from the live performance
I feel that this new Hänssler Classic version is now the premier
Le buisson ardent Op.203/171, a two
section work, is one of the principal contenders for Koechlin’s
most powerful symphonic creation and has been described as containing
the composer’s most original and exciting writing. Koechlin based
Le buisson ardent on volume nine of his friend Romain Rolland’s
popular novel Jean-Christophe. It was a project that the
composer had been contemplating for many years until the late 1930s
when he considered that he now had the necessary expertise and inspiration.
The second part Op.171 was the first to be composed in 1938 with
the first part Op.203 being composed later in 1945 to serve as a
type of prologue. In the first part Koechlin’s evocation of a cold,
empty, quiet and lifeless wasteland is particularly successful.
This desolate section is almost immediately followed by a terrifying
and damaging wind, the precursor to harbinger of spring. In part
two the ethereal sound of the ondes martinot dominates throughout.
The glorious climax which commences at point 19:14 (track 3) is
the highlight of the score.
The RSO Stuttgart under Holliger show their undoubted
expertise and cement their credentials as one of Germany’s leading
orchestras in what is acknowledged as extremely difficult music.
The score shows that Koechlin was most adventurous with his instrumentation
and the players provide the necessary high levels of concentration
allowing the listener to appreciate what the composer recognised
as initially appearing to be mysterious and unfriendly music. As
with a substantial amount of Koechlin’s music the manifold rewards
are not revealed at the first hearing.
The Hänssler Classic sound engineers have
done a fine job and the sonics are warm, clear and transparent with
an excellent balance. Koechlin’s growing number of admirers will
relish this stellar release and this seems a perfect recording for
those wishing to explore the unique orchestral sound-world of this
wonderful composer for the first time.
[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
see also review
by Rob Barnett