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Philippe HERSANT (b.1948)
Violin Concerto (2003) [23:27] 1
Der Wanderer: for Chamber Orchestra and Men’s Voices (2002) [11:45] 2
Streams: for Piano and Orchestra (2000) [27:01] 3
1 Augustin Dumay (violin), Orchestre National de France/Jonathan Darlington; 2 Chœur de Radio France/Michel Trenchant; Orchestre National de France/Jonathan Darlington; 3 Alice Ader (piano), Orchestre Symphonique de la Radio Danoise/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 131 January 2004; 26 February 2004; 330 January 2004; recording locations not given
Densité 21 DE 001 [60:02]

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Born in Rome, the French composer Philippe Hersant studied with André Jolivet, alongside literary studies - particular fascinations were with Joyce and Borges. His early work was apparently avant-garde in style, but in 1978 he disowned – and partially destroyed – all this earlier music. Since then he has written works which are essentially tonal in idiom. He has worked a good deal in the theatre, notably with directors such as Jean-François Peyret and Jean Jourdheuil. He wrote much-praised music for Kader Belarbi’s Ballet Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights), produced by Paris Opera Ballet in 2002. His music for films includes three films by Nicolas Philibert: Un animal, des animaux (1994), Qui sait (1998) and Ĕtre et avoir (2002).

Hersant’s concert music includes two string quartets (1985 and 1988), the first of which was recorded by he Quattuor Enesco on REM 311060, the second by The Rosamonde Quartet on ADDA 581280 along with works by Dutilleux and Fenelon; two operas, including Le Château des Carpathes (1989-91, revised 2001), which has been recorded twice, on ADES 202272 and Accord  465 493-2 (revised version); two cello concertos (1989, 1996-7), the first of which, with Siegfried Palm as soloist with the Ensemble Alternance, conducted by Arturo Tamayo was recorded on Harmonia Mundi HMC 905216. And much else, too. This seems, however, to be his first appearance on the pages of MusicWeb.

The works on this present disc are written in a musical idiom with obvious roots in late German romanticism, perhaps in Strauss in particular, though with an awareness of later formal and harmonic developments. I suspect that the music of Henri Dutilleux means a lot to Hersant and that it is partly through Dutilleux that earlier presences such as Debussy and Ravel make their marks on Hersant’s writing. Much of the writing has a poetic, inward quality, a sense of dream or of distant memories recalled and reshaped. Stylistically speaking, much of this music could have been written fifty or more years ago. But one feels that in turning away from much in the last half century’s music, Hersant has done what is most important – he has been true to his own sensibility and imagination. The result is a musical voice which speaks with conviction and coherence.

The Violin Concerto is played here by the violinist who commissioned it – Augustin Dumay. It was premiered by Dumay and the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Jonathan Darlington, on 31 January 2004. It is a predominantly slow, largely rhapsodic piece, soaked in quiet melancholy. Technical virtuosity is less in demand from the soloist than are beauty and variety of tone, and Dumay plays expressively and evocatively throughout. I can’t pretend that this is a work I found especially striking or immediately exciting; but it is one whose subtleties grow on one with repeated listenings, and there are a number of passages of genuine beauty, full of inner longing, as the piece moves slowly and gracefully through and around some repeated motifs.

‘Der Wanderer’ sets a poem by the Salzburg poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914). In his booklet notes Hersant tells us that us he was especially attracted by the last two lines of Trakl’s poem: "Jener kehrt wieder und wandelt an grünem Gestade, / Schaukelt auf schwarzem Gondelschiffchen durch die verfallene Stadt". ("He returns again and roams along green banks, / Rocks in a little black gondola through the derelict town" – translated by Alexander Stillmark: Georg Trakl, Poems and Prose, Libris, 2001). Hersant writes: "This phrase immediately reminded me of the unique and strange universe of Franz Liszt’s final piano pieces (La lugubre gondole, Nuages gris). My piece is a kind of barcarolle with an unstable and floating harmony that comes to a close with a vision of the end of the world". Harsant’s setting captures very well the mildly ‘gothic’ mood of Trakl’s poem, where "the toad peers with crystalline eyes" and "the moon … sinks gleaming into sad waters".

Literary allusion and cross-references to earlier musical works also characterise the third piece on this CD: ‘Streams: for Piano and Orchestra’. Again it is played by the soloist - Alice Ader – who gave the first performance, the work having its premiere on the 5 December 2001, when Ader was the soloist with l’Orchestre Nationale de Lyon, conducted by Janos Fürst. The work – in five sections – responds to Milton’s presentation, in Book II of Paradise Lost of the "four infernal rivers". Section five has lines from the same book of Milton’s epic as an epigraph:

Far off from these, a slow and silent stream,
Lethe, the river of oblivion, rolls
Her watery labyrinth.

Picking up on the reference to the "labyrinth", Hersant incorporates audible references to a number of other musical ‘labyrinths’ – such as Locatelli’s ‘Il Labirinto armonico’ (his Concerto in D major for violin, Op.3 No.12), Marin Marais’s suite ‘Le Labirinthe’ (from Quatrième Livre de pièces à une et trois violes, of 1717) and Bach’s Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth (BWV 591). In this fifth section, the solo piano develops a long, winding musical line from opening to closing bars, the sense of flowing water being evoked alongside that of the untroubled, slow discovery of a way through the labyrinth. Knowing of Hersant’s interest in the great Argentinian writer, one suspects that there may well also be an allusion to Borges’ recurrent fascination with the labyrinth. In the four earlier sections, alternations of tempo can perhaps be understood as references to the different qualities of what Milton called "the baleful streams" – "abhorred Styx", "sad Acheron", "Cocytus, named of lamentation loud" and "fierce Phlegethon". The dominant mood is, unsurprisingly, somewhat dark, the pianist called upon more for rich harmonic textures than for dazzling fingerwork. Hersant, as befits a composer with his background in theatre and film, is a master in the creation of mood and imaginative picture, and this is an interesting and rewarding work.

There is perhaps not a great deal of variety of mood on this disc; there is rather more darkness, more evocation of night time and melancholy, of the Miltonic underworld than all will want to experience at a single hearing. The CD is best heard a work at a time. As such it is good to have as a record of some aspects of the work of an obviously very talented French contemporary.

So far as I can judge these are assured and intelligent performances. The booklet notes contain useful – if brief - comments by the composer on each of the three works. It is unfortunate that neither text nor translation of the Trakl poem is included; nor are there any biographical notes on composer or performers.

Glyn Pursglove


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