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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Vers la Voûte Étoilée - nocturne pour orchestre dédié à la mémoire de Camille Flammarion (1923-33, rev. 1939) [12:31]
Le Docteur Fabricius - poème symphonique d’après la nouvelle de Charles Dollfus Op. 202 (1941-44 orch. 1946) [51:09]
Christine Simonin (ondes martenot)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Heinz Holliger
Rec. SWR, Stadthalle Sindelfingen, Konzertsaal, 24-26 Feb 2003. DDD
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.106 [63:40]

I ended my review of Hänssler’s first Koechlin CD (La Course de printemps and Le buisson ardent Hänssler Classic CD 93.045) with the following plea:-

Many Koechlin works remain to be recorded. I hope that someone will tackle some of these. Conductors would do well to sift through these ambitious orchestral works: Vers La Voûte Etoilée ... Docteur Fabricius and The Symphony of Hymns. If only Holliger and the Stuttgart radio orchestra could be persuaded to record these works.

Here we are, more than a year later with my Aladdin wish fulfilled by Holliger and the Stuttgart orchestra. If I had known it was this easy I would I have asked for more!. In fact I will end the present CD with some other Koechlin requests and let’s see what happens.

Obviously Hänssler and Holliger are supporters of Koechlin and it is to be hoped that there will be many more discs to come. In the present case we get two mystical-philosophical tone poems written in one case just before the Second World War and in other written during the war and the Occupation.

Vers La Voûte Etoilée is the more compact of the two works. Koechlin’s multitudinous interests outside music included both astronomy and photography. Flammarion was an astronomer one of whose books was decisive in initiating the composer’s life-long absorption in the starry night skies. Vers La Voûte Etoilée, literally ‘Towards the starry vault’ (i.e. vault of heaven) can be variously translated as Towards the starry sky or perhaps more poetically Towards the starry firmament. The composer tells us that this represents a journey to very distant places far from earth yet still in touch with human emotions. More a parallel with Holst’s Neptune (from The Planets) than Holst’s Betelgeuse (from the Humbert Wolfe songs). It is a work of evanescent romanticism with melodic lines constantly shifting and refocusing as in Delius’s Song of the High Hills. There are some transiently Mahlerian moments and others where there is a hint of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. It rises to a peak of impassioned ‘angoisse’ and then languidly falls back into silence. It is a work that was a decade in the making and dates from an earlier era than the other piece on this disc

The night sky and eternity also lie at the heart of Docteur Fabricius - an even more ambitious piece in fifteen episodes one of which, the longest at 8:58, is entitled Le Ciel étoilée. It too pursues a Whitmanesque agenda but across a span of just over 5o minutes. The narrative has the protagonist visiting the philosopher Doctor Fabricius in his isolated house high in the mountains. He stays the night with the good doctor. The doctor tells how he sees life as an inhuman entity in which mankind is used simply as a vehicle to continue itself in return for which there is no relief from pain or tragedy. He bids his guest good-night. The guest alone in his room gazes out from the high tower upon the great unclouded expanse of the star-studded night sky and is convinced by the vista’s immensity and silent beauty that life has a benevolent harmony and order. When morning comes he awakes in an inn and realises that he has not yet seen the doctor. It was all a dream: cynicism and idealism.

The music is highly varied. In fact the note-writer claims Koechlin as an early example of Polystylisticism. Certainly the composer’s eclecticism in evidence in Docteur Fabricius. This contrasts with Vers la Voûte where the heightened romantic-emotional language is more homogeneous. The dour and byzantine grandeur of the music for Fabricius’s manor house (tr. 2) is imposingly stern; having the gaunt and Homeric tread found in the Hovhaness symphonies. Much of the music before the Chorale Aus tiefer noth is atonal - a picture of the impassive and inhumane chaos that Fabricius reveals to the hapless and soon-downcast visitor. The chorale (tr. 11) has a momentous majesty - more regal and humane than the Manoir movement (tr. 2). It prepares the ground for the trembling strings of the Le Ciel étoilé - an extraordinary envisioning of the night sky. The sensitive, tender and meditative nature of this music is enhanced by the ondes martenot, here touchingly played by Christine Simonin - who also played on the first Hänssler Koechlin CD. The mood of wonder is comparable with the music for solo violin in Finzi’s Introit. Mind you, earlier in the work Simonin adds to the fury of the atonal maelstrom with notes suggesting a hideous steam engine in agonised death throes. All that is banished for this utterly enthralling movement which is followed by La Nature, la Vie, l’Espoir where the mood is further nourished and intensified. The ondes continues its poignant vocalise having a yet more prominent role. This is touching and healing music - Ravel-like balm to a war-torn world yet written during France’s dark night of the soul. From this inwardness a new confidence evolves and rises in Réponse de l’Homme. This is full of pastoral joy rather than anything terribly grand. Strangely this episode transiently recalls the finale of Alan Bush’s Second Symphony. Peace and prayer are regained in the Choral final which will occasionally remind you of Finzi especially in the string music and perhaps of the peace found in Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony.

The premiere was given in Brussels as a result of the untiring championship of Paul Collaer of Belgian Radio. Letters by Koechlin to Collaer are helpfully excerpted in the booklet. The first performance was given on 14 January 1949 by the Orchestre I.N.R. de Bruxelles conducted by Franz André. The composer had written out all the orchestral material to make the performance possible. Le Docteur Fabricius has not been performed in public since that date. There has been a radio performance. I was alerted to the work’s strength on 27 February 1997 by a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Later the same week I also heard Vers La Voûte Etoilée this time conducted by Matthias Bamert.

It is a special pleasure to welcome both these rewarding works to the catalogue. They are of that rare type that communicates immediately and also reveals fresh attractions with repeated hearings.

The present disc is handsomely documented by Otfried Nies of the Koechlin Archive in Kassel. Koechlin’s letters are thoughtfully used to give insights into the genesis of the two works. There is also supportive biographical material on both Flammarion (1842-1925) and Dollfus (1827-1913). There are also well reproduced photographs of Koechlin, of Dollfus and one by Koechlin using his favoured Verascope process.

I hope that Holliger and his distinguished orchestra will next record Koechlin’s five movement Symphony of Hymns (1938: hymns to the sun, night, day, youth, life), La Cité nouvelle (1938, a fantasy tone poem after H.G. Wells - perhaps inspired by Things to Come - Koechlin was a keen cinema-goer), the First and Second Symphonies (1916, 1943-44), En Mer, La Nuit (a tone poem after Heine’s ‘North Sea’) and La Forêt (1896-1907) a further tone poem in two parts.

This is an important disc and if that was the end of the story you could ‘walk on by’; after all, merely worthy music need not detain us when there is so much to hear. Instead these pieces represent real and deeply rewarding discoveries requiring a little persistence in the case of Fabricius but instantly attractive in Vers la Voûte Étoilée.

Rob Barnett


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