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Philippe HERSANT (b. 1948)
Paysage avec ruines (1999)a [20:30]
Im fremden Land (2003)b [21:10]
Chants du Sud (1996)c [11:07]
Missa Brevis (1986)d [17:45]
Luisa Islam Ali Zade (mezzo)a; Hélène Collerette (violin)c; Jérôme Comte (clarinet)b; Alice Ader (piano)b; Quatuor Renoirb; Musicatreized; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio Francead; Ernest Martinez Izquierdoa, Roland Hayrabediand
rec. Radio France, February 2004
DENSITE 21 DE005 [70:40]

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Philippe Hersant’s Missa Brevis, completed in 1986, is the earliest work in this selection from his large and varied output; a catalogue that includes an opera, two string quartets and a good deal of choral, orchestral and instrumental music. This has all been reasonably well served in commercial recordings, although some may be rather difficult to obtain.

Missa Brevis only sets the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei from the ordinary mass. The piece is scored for small mixed chorus and orchestra. In his short notes accompanying this release, the composer insists that his mass setting is not for liturgical use, and that some of music has been influenced by Byzantine liturgy, Monteverdi and Thomas Tallis, whose Spem in alium is briefly quoted in the concluding Dona nobis pacem. However, it must be said straightaway that these “borrowings” are always intricately and subtly worked into the music. There’s no hint of pastiche or parody. As will be seen later, this working method seems a constant in Hersant’s music. The Missa Brevis is comparatively austere, sober but directly expressive. Direct expression, too, is another constant in this composer’s output.

Chants du Sud for solo violin was composed at the request of and dedicated to Philippe Graffin who gave the first performance during the 1996 Turku Festival in Finland. It’s a suite of short impressions evoking an imaginary trip around the Mediterranean through allusions to folk music from Turkey, Spain and the Balkans. The music does not quote any original folk tune, but evokes an imaginary folkloric tradition based on existing tunes. This is a splendid short, unpretentious, though by no means easy work that never outstays its welcome.

Paysage avec ruines is a considerably more substantial and ambitious work, actually a tone poem, albeit one including a vocal setting in its final section. The composer briefly mentions the three extra-musical ideas that helped him fashion the music. The title alludes to the works of Monsu Desiderio, actually a pseudonym for two painters from Lorraine (Didier Barra and François Nomé) who worked in Naples and who apparently collaborated on their often visionary, apocalyptic paintings such as Destruction de Sodome in which small human figures appear to be absorbed in fantastic cities or landscapes. Some writers have made connection between these often enigmatic paintings and the music of the Neapolitan composer Gesualdo, whose music is thus appropriately briefly quoted in the course of the piece (e.g. at 8:20). The third “layer”, is a poem by Georg Trakl who died during World War I and whose expressionistic poems undoubtedly reflect the impact of the traumatic experience of the Great War. In this respect, one may of course think of the war poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Unfortunately, the text of Trakl’s poem (Schlaf) is not printed in the notes, so that it is difficult to understand why the composer chose to set it; but the first word of the poem Verflucht (“Damned”) obviously does not point to a peaceful nocturne. In spite of all this, the music is tightly worked-out in a decidedly contemporary, though very accessible idiom; and the scoring is simply superb. I have been impressed by this powerful piece.

The most recent work was composed in 2003 as a tribute to the Olivier Greif, whom Hersant regards as one of the most gifted French composers of his generation. This time, the music is based on an old German song Innsbrück, ich muss dich lassen, once harmonised by Heinrich Isaac and later best known as the Lutheran choral O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, often quoted by Bach himself. Again, this borrowed tune is deeply imbedded into the music. The tune was chosen for its symbolic meaning of parting from this world and coming together in some “foreign land” (im fremden Land, in German). The original tune is stated by the clarinet at the outset of the piece; fragments keep reappearing throughout the various movements and Isaac’s harmonisation is quoted almost literally by the string quartet in the last movement. Im fremden Land is a substantial sextet for clarinet, string quartet and piano in five contrasted movements: Wiegenlied, Totentanz, Andenken, Phantasiestück and Choral, the titles of which may at times be a bit misleading. The opening Lullaby is not particularly soft or tender, neither is the concluding Choral specially appeased. Totentanz and Phantasiestück function as scherzos and – by so doing – rather live up to their title. The central movement, the emotional core of the work, is the real ‘in memoriam’ movement. It is a very fine and deeply felt piece of music.

Hersant’s music was new to me, although – as mentioned earlier – some of it is available in commercial recordings. Going by works represented here, it is superbly made, serious and often strongly expressive. It does not make any compromise to please, but convinces and appeals by its unquestionable expressive strength and sincerity. I know now that I will be looking for other recordings of his music.

These performances were probably recorded live, but they all sound remarkably well. There is little cause for complaint, my sole reservations being that we are told next to nothing concerning the composer and his output and that the words of Trakl’s poem are not printed. Hersant’s music has a strong direct appeal and although it is in no way easy or simple that makes this a most desirable release.

Hubert Culot

see also Hersant Violin Concerto






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