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Art and Music - Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): Music of His Time
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

The Trojans at Carthage: Prelude [05:01]
San Diego Symphony Orchestra/Yoav Talmi
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

L’Arlésienne, Suite no. 2: Pastorale [05:47]
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Bramall
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)

10 Pièces pittoresques: Mélancolie [02:09], Improvisation [04:47]
Georges Rabol (piano)
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)

Chanson triste [03:25], Le Manoir de Rosemonde [02:37], Elégie [03:07]
Paul Groves (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Masques et Bergamasques op.112: Gavotte [03:44], Pastorale [04:22]
RTE Sinfonietta/John Georgiadis
Léon BOËLLMANN (1862-1897)

Piano Quartet in F minor, op.10: Finale [07:50]
Ilona Prunyi (piano), Béla Bánfalvi (violin), János Fejérvári (viola), Károly Botvay (cello)
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)

Gymnopédie no.1 [02:41]
Klara Körmendi (piano)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [10:33]
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Rahbari
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)

24 Pièces en style libre op.31: Epitaphe [03:58]
Simon Lindley (organ)

Nocturnes: Nuages [07:34]
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Rahbari
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Miroirs: Noctuelles [04:18], Oiseaux tristes [03:47]
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
Recording dates and locations not given
NAXOS 8.558179 [76:37]

To be nastily cynical, this looks like a neat way of getting extra mileage out of recordings which have probably sold all they’re going to. But, given the premises, I must say it’s well done.

Hugh Griffith provides a useful introduction to the life and work of Cézanne and four paintings from various stages of his career are reproduced as well as the size of a CD booklet allows. The outer covers also have details from a further two, including a self-portrait. He then follows with an equally informative account of the music being written in France during the painter’s lifetime. The pieces chosen to illustrate this are reasonable and not always the obvious ones, though the implicit suggestion that Boëllmann and Vierne are of more moment than Massenet, Franck, Gounod or Saint-Saëns is a surprising one. It could be retorted that the music of the first three has even less congruity with Cézanne’s art than some of the others included, but the dry neo-classicism of some Saint-Saëns surely points further towards the future than you might imagine. The Boëllmann ought at least to be a pleasant surprise but the Vierne is one of the more turgid pieces from an uneven opus: why not the evocative "Arabesque" or the rousing "Carillon"? The booklet concludes with a chronology, setting important dates from Cézanne’s biography alongside the major literary and musical events. There is no attempt to draw parallels between Cézanne’s painting and the music of his time and it is here, I think, that the enterprise reveals itself to be based on false premises.

Supposing the likely purchaser to be someone who frequents art exhibitions rather more than the concert hall and is attracted by the idea of filling in his background knowledge, he is going to be struck by just how little the music here parallels the painting. First we have Berlioz, big-boned and romantic; he could easily be illustrating paintings by Guéricault or Delacroix. Then we have Bizet whose sun-drenched Provence landscape ought to be a close parallel with Cézanne’s own, and yet it is not: rather, it basks in a Corot-like glow, populated by Millet’s peasants. Only at the very end, with Ravel’s sharply-chiselled textures (perhaps anticipated by Chabrier), do we find anything resembling ideals in common with Cézanne.

The truth is that musicians tend to live rather isolated lives and, while literature and painting tend to move together, music follows about thirty years afterwards. Take any artistic movement you like – baroque, neo-classical, romantic – and it is the same story. Here we are talking about impressionism and the fundamental dates are for impressionist painting are:

1863: Salon des Refusés

1874: A collective exhibition following which the critic Leroy invented the term impressionism as a term of abuse. Instead, the word stuck. Cézanne exhibited at both of these.

The corresponding movement in literature was symbolism. Some important dates are:

1857: Baudelaire: Fleurs du mal (the seminal influence)

1865: Mallarmé: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

1869: Verlaine: Fêtes Galantes

1873: Rimbaud: Une Saison en enfer

In music, the dates to remember are:

1894: Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (so it took nearly thirty years for Mallarmé’s poem to find a musical equivalent)

1901: Ravel: Jeux d’eau (the first piano piece to use the manner and textures we now recognise as impressionist)

But hey, I’m talking about impressionism and it’s true that Cézanne exhibited with the impressionists from the beginning, but his aims were always different and he left them to go his own way. Art critics label him a post-impressionist; Matisse and Picasso saw him as the father of modern painting. His concern to reduce landscapes to their underlying geometrical structure (clearly illustrated in the booklet) had no more to do with Debussy than it did with Renoir or Monet; it has slight parallels with the more neo-classical Ravel, but for music which shares Cézanne’s ideals you must look far ahead, to post-Rite Stravinsky and even to Webern.

I feel, therefore, that the premises of this disc are unsound. But if you don’t agree it is, as I said at the beginning, very nicely done. The performances are all adequate though it would be idle to suggest that Rahbari’s Debussy, for example, ranks with the best. Still, it is politely read and does no damage. The performance of the Satie is thankfully not too lugubrious. I had to turn the volume up when I got to the Debussy. Perhaps if I had turned it down again when I came to the Ravel I would not have thought Thiollier’s performances a little heavy-handed.

Christopher Howell



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