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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
La Course de printemps - poème symphonique Op. 95 (1925-27) [33.40]
Le buisson ardent poème symphonique after an episode from 'Jean-Christophe' by Romain Rolland Op. 201 (Part I); Op. 171 (Part II) (1945, 1938) [12.44; 25.54]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Heinz Holliger
Christine Simonin (ondes martenot)
rec. Live concert recordings. Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Beethovensaal 23-25 Feb 2000 (Printemps); Stadthalle Sindelfingen, Konzertsaal (Buisson), 19-23 Feb 2001. DDD
Faszinationmusik series
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.045 [72.30]

CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS



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 pipeline.

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, 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 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 discovered master’."

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 and spaciousness.

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 choice.

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 ISBN 3718648989.]

Michael Cookson

see also review by Rob Barnett


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