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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Maurice OHANA (1913 – 1992)
Syllabaire pour Phèdre (1966/7)a
Cris (1968/9)b
Messe (1977)c
Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias (1949/50)d
Cantigas (1953/4)e
Signes (1965)f
Livre des prodiges (1978/9)g
Chiffres de clavecin (1968)h
Anneau du Tamarit (1976)i
Sorôn-Ngô (1969/71)j
Sacral d’Ilx (1975)k
Deux pièces pour clavecin (1982/3)l
Carillons pour les heures du jour et de la nuit (1960)m
Mady Mesplé (soprano)a; Hanna Schaer (soprano)c; Isabel Garcisanz (mezzo-soprano)ce; Michel Jarry (baritone)d; José Luis Gómez (speaker)d; Elisabeth Chojnacka (harpsichord)hklm; Alain Meunier (cello)i; Geneviève Joy, Jacqueline Robin (piano)j; Choeur de l’ORTFabe; Choeur de Radio Francec; Ensemble "Ars Nova"adef; Orchestra National de Francegi; Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio Franceh; Marius Constantaf, Marcel Couraudbe, Guy Riebelc, Theodor Guschlbauerd, Stanislaw Skrowaczewskig, Marc Andraei
Recorded: Various venues, 1967, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1983 and 1987
ERATO 2564 61321-2 [77:45 + 70:25 + 70:51 + 63:53]

 

As far back as the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, Erato recorded a number of major works by Ohana. This went on during the CD era, so that Ohana’s music has been available in commercial recordings fairly regularly. More recently still, his discography has grown considerably with several new recordings by several record companies (Timpani, Calliope and Opus 111), so that most of his major works are now currently available. Some of you may remember that I reviewed three fairly recent Timpani releases of his orchestral music some time ago. A number of pieces still await recording, either new ones or further re-issues; in this respect I still hope that Philips might re-issue their recording of Les Trois contes de l’Honorable Fleur, now long deleted.

Ohana’s composing career might roughly be split into three different periods: an early ‘Spanish’ period culminating in the guitar concerto Tres Graficos (once recorded, but now no longer available), Lanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias and Cantigas; a more radical and experimental middle period that produced works such as Syllabaire pour Phèdre (1966/7), Signes (1965), Cris (1968/9) and Chiffres de clavecin (1968): and a final period in which the mastery gained over the preceding years allowed Ohana to compose with complete freedom and perfectly accomplished expression as is clearly heard in his late masterpieces such as Anneau du Tamarit (1976), Livre des prodiges (1978/9), the second cello concerto In dark and blue or the Piano Concerto (1981).

Both Llanto and Cantigas are the unquestionable masterpieces of Ohana’s "Spanish" period. These powerful scores are quintessentially Spanish in tone and soul, though conspicuously free from any all-too-easy picturesque quality. The music goes straight to the very heart of Spanish music as can be experienced in cante jondo, for example; and possesses a formidable, often rugged energy, miles away from the postcard clichés heard in lesser, more superficial works. This is sun-drenched Spain, not without some latent violence or brutality (Llanto) or with some forceful mysticism (Cantigas). The present performances are remarkably fine, although they inevitably have to compete with some more recent recorded performances : Cantigas on Pierre Verany PV787032 and Llanto on Calliope CAL 9877, both conducted by Roland Hayrabedian who has steadfastly championed Ohana’s music over the years, mainly with the ensemble Musicatreize.

Syllabaire pour Phèdre (1966/7), Cris (1968/9), Signes (1965)and Chiffres de clavecin (1968) date from Ohana’s middle period; and are all rather more experimental and complex in many respects, but never gratuitously so, for Ohana always aims at expression whereas the technical aspects of the music are just possible ways to achieve expression. True, most pieces from this important period of Ohana’s musical progress are quite demanding, I mean, on the performers’ and the listeners’ part; but – again – never intractably so. Ohana’s aural imagination and vital rhythms are such that these pieces never sound as dry, matter-of-fact experiments. Syllabaire pour Phèdre, actually some sort of chamber opera, exploits the many possibilities of the human voice as a musical object; as does the choral piece Cris ("Shouts") composed immediately after the so-called May 1968 events that shattered France as never before in this country’s history, i.e. after the revolution of 1789. The instrumental works also explore a wide range of techniques such as aleatoric, extensive use of percussion and micro-intervals (often through the use of third-tone zither, a favourite instrument that Ohana used quite frequently throughout his career). But, again, the difficulty and complexity of these pieces are generously compensated by some powerfully expressive strength.

Messe (1977), the first cello concerto Anneau du Tamarit (1976) and the extraordinary Livre des prodiges (1978/9) are fully representative of the output of Ohana’s full maturity. He is now full master of his aims and means, and able to compose in complete freedom giving full rein to his imagination. He also now allows exotic rhythms into his music, that considerably enlarge his rhythmic palette and that often characterise his late works. The impressive Livre des prodiges, some sort of present-day comment on The Rite of Spring, powerfully conjures-up some ages-old and mysterious, subterranean rituals in most vivid orchestral terms without ever imitating Stravinsky’s masterpiece. This is – as far as I am concerned – one of Ohana’s masterpieces, and one of his most accessible major works. The Lorca-inspired Anneau du Tamarit, too, clearly demonstrates Ohana’s deeply felt lyricism without compromise or sentimentality. It is a most moving piece that never fails to make its mark. Messe exists in two versions, viz. one for concert use (heard here) and one for liturgical use. It perfectly illustrates Ohana’s ability to write simpler, but immensely rewarding music, again without writing-down or compromising.

This worthwhile and most welcome compilation is completed with some chamber works such as Sorôn-Ngô for two pianos, three pieces for harpsichord superlatively played by Elisabeth Chojnacka (who else?) and the impressionistic Sacral d’Ilx for oboe, horn and harpsichord (i.e. the instrumental combination that Debussy had planned for his fourth sonata that he did not live long enough to write).

All performances are consistently fine (many of these recordings were made under the composer’s supervision), played by musicians that had a long association with the composer and his music; and the recorded sound is still admirable.

Ohana’s music is not easy, for sure; but it possesses a remarkable power to impress, to question and – more importantly – to communicate. He was a highly personal, sincere and utterly honest composer who painstakingly ploughed his furrow regardless of any current fashion, but who remained attentive to what was going on around him as a musician and as a man. This release provides a fair introduction to Ohana’s personal sound-world; and, as such, is warmly recommended to anyone who might like to explore this important composer’s music at lesser expense. My bargain of the month.

Hubert Culot

 



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