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Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Impressions de Music Hall (c.1925) [18:08]
Fantaisie Basque for violin and orchestra (1927) [12:08]
Izé˙l (1894) [9:54]
Divertissements sur un thčme pastoral (1931) [12:10]
Philippe Koch (violin)
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Bramwell Tovey
rec. Luxembourg Philharmonie, September 2005
TIMPANI IC1096 [52:39]



The first work on this disc is a real treat. Ignore the long complicated compositional history of Impressions de Music Hall – just sit back and enjoy a fine bit of French pastiche. And this is certainly not meant to disparage the work.  The bottom line of this work is that it explores much that was musically in the Parisian air at the time of composition -1925.

The first movement of the ‘suite’ is a brief but brassy prelude followed by an exuberant piece entitled Chorus Girls and subtitled, rather mischievously French Blues. This is full of jazz and things ‘American’ that were influencing Ravel and Milhaud at the time; look out for the glissandi on the trombones! This is followed by a musical dedication to the ‘famous’ Little Tich who had been a dancing clown with the Belle Époque. Pierné uses a wide palette of instrumental colour to portray the bitter-sweet movements of the clown. The Le Numéro espagnol is another classic example of how Frenchmen seem to be able to evoke the Spanish atmosphere better than Iberian natives. This music is a synthesis of subtle orchestration and ‘in your face’ guitar and castanet platitudes. Perhaps it is easy to evoke the music of Ravel and Debussy in response to this movement but Pierné does additionally bring a genuinely French flavour to the Spanish scene. The final movement of this suite is entitled Clowns musicaux (les Fratelli). Here we have a wide variety of styles and references. Perhaps Stravinsky is called to mind; there is a definite Petrushka feel to some of this material. However look out for quotations from the Ambroise Thomas opera Mignon and Delibes’ ballet Sylvia! The movement and the piece ends with an extremely lively coda complete with hunting horns.

This is an excellent piece to introduce the listener to the music of 1920s Paris in general and Pierné in particular. The attentive listener cannot fail to be seriously impressed with the composer’s superb use of orchestral colour and manipulation of musical themes.

As noted above Pierné was no stranger to the Spanish musical influence. He had already raided a publicly funded archive of Basque tunes for his incidental music to Ramuntcho: he used the ‘zortzico’ rhythm in his Quintet of 1919.  However for his Fantaisie Basque he turned to the work of Father José Antonio de Donostia who had spent much time collecting material for books about Basque culture. The Fantasia is an exploration of some seven tunes in different moods and tempi. The violin soloist is given ample opportunity to show off – both in a bravura sense and also with plenty of opportunity to display the melodic shape and considerable depth of these folk tunes. Pierné balances the orchestra and soloist giving a satisfying structure and texture to this work. So often ‘Fantasias’ can be seen as being just ‘one tune following another’ – Pierné avoids this pitfall. Philippe Koch, the Belgian soloist brings considerable ‘local’ colour to this Iberian music.

I had to listen to the Izé˙l incidental music twice before being able to comment sensibly for this review. I was not convinced as to the value of this work on my first hearing. However I read somewhere that some critics have compared this music favourably with Grieg’s Peer Gynt so I felt I ought to see if I was missing something. After a second listen I can safely say that the music does begin to reveal itself – not only nodding to Grieg but perhaps also Rimsky-Korsakov and his Scheherazade. Whether Pierné exceeds the creativity of either of these two composers is debatable. Some dozen numbers are extracted from the incidental music composed in 1894 for a production of Izé˙l. This play was set in India in the 6th century BC and exploited the late nineteenth century taste for things oriental and esoteric. The present suite has four movements – The Entry of the King; The Entry of the Princesses; an Introduction and Lament and finally a gorgeous Serenade.

The last piece on this CD is a bit of an enigma. In fact in some ways it appears to be two works ‘stuck’ together. The Divertissements on a Pastoral Theme is formally divided into two main sections. The first is effectively a theme followed with six variations – or ‘doubles’ as Pierné refers to them, echoing French baroque practice. Following on from the last variation without so much as a break the second section presents stylistically contrasting music. A ‘waltz’ is followed by a Cortčge-Blues which makes uses of an attractive and languid melody for saxophone solo. It is almost as if Pierné has deliberately opposed ‘academic’ music with ‘jazz-inspired’ material in the same work. And I am not sure if it works. Each section is satisfying but together the hiatus is perhaps too marked and severe.

This is a good CD – but as a French reviewer has remarked it is ‘unessential’ – except to those who specialise in mid-20th century French music. That being said it is certainly an enjoyable issue with much that is attractive, interesting and even impressive. What is not in doubt is the composer’s skill, especially in instrumentation and harmonic colour.

John France




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