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alternatively Crotchet

Pierre MAURICE (1868-1936)
Overture, La nuit tous les chats sont gris, Op 35 (1924), [4:51]
Pêcheur d’Islande, impressions musicales d’après Pierre Loti, Op 8 (1895, rev 1911) [23:14]
Francesca da Rimini, poème symphonique d’après Dante, Op 6 (1899) [14:21]
Daphné, prélude pour orchestre, Op 2 bis (1894-7, ed. Adriano) [3:15]
Suite: Perséphone, Op 38 (1930) [27:12]
Fugue for stringed instruments, Op 20 (1901) [5:00]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, January 2003. DDD
STERLING CDS 1053-2 [78:17]

As obscure as the Swiss composer Pierre Maurice undeniably is to us today, in his own time he was reasonably well connected. Amongst his array of teachers were Massenet, Fauré, Lavignac and Gédalge, he knew Jaques-Dalcroze (see review of his music also on Sterling), Guy-Ropartz and Koechlin, and his music, which enjoyed performances across Europe, attracted the attention of conductors such as Mahler and Weingartner. Curiously for a composer who had studied in Paris, whose music was titled in French and exhibited many Francophile characteristics, Germany was the country where he scored his greatest successes and where he settled for almost twenty years, returning to his native Switzerland only after the close of the Great War. However, Maurice was a devoted follower of Wagner, so it was only natural that he should look first and foremost to Germany as his spiritual home. After his death, on Christmas Day 1936 from a suspected stomach ulcer, his music fell into almost total neglect.
It is unfortunate that the majority of the works presented here exist in alternative and better-known treatments by other composers. Pêcheur d’Islande (“Icelandic Fisherman”) is Maurice’s “most successful orchestral piece”, according to Adriano’s very detailed and enthusiastic booklet notes. It deals with the same story, from Pierre Loti’s famous novel, as had been covered four years before by his friend Joseph Guy-Ropartz. Ropartz left us an orchestral suite derived from incidental music to a stage dramatization. Ropartz’s three movement suite (reviewed on Timpani 1C1095) was overtaken by Maurice’s, at least in numbers of performances. Overall though it is the Ropartz that to my mind retains the greater immediacy with vivid scoring that lets one taste the salt spray and feel the motion of the sea. Maurice’s suite, by contrast, is less evocative of the element and more symphonic in construction. The two treatments of the wedding (Ropartz’s finale, placed second by Maurice) are very telling in defining each composer’s approach. Nonetheless, Maurice’s version is given here in its 1911 re-composition which reduced the length of the whole, dropping the original finale and splitting the original third span into two. It is a finely written work if not quite the “magnificent score” conductor Adriano claims for it.
Adriano seems to me still wider of the mark in his assertion that Maurice’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini (1899) is “the finest of the story’s different symphonic incarnations”. Indeed he states “in its inspiration, impact, structure and orchestration I consider it perfect.” Impressive advocacy, and there is no denying his commitment from the podium either, but I just do not hear what in Maurice’s rather bland treatment of the famous episode from Dante’s Inferno can have inspired such devotion. There is none of the passion or sheer excitement that one finds in Tchaikovsky’s rightly celebrated overture-fantasia, written twenty-three years before. Maurice’s rather Wagnerian piece gives few hints of Dante’s terror in viewing the condemned lovers, nor the “infernal storm” in which they are caught up.
The prelude Daphné was Maurice’s first orchestral essay, a pretty enough trifle lasting a little over three minutes. A miniature tone poem, the prelude has a programme of the composer’s devising based on the episode from Ovid that also inspired Richard Strauss in his under-rated opera. However, it was Debussy’s music, as Adriano points out, that was the starting point and indeed Maurice retained an impressionist streak in his musical make-up throughout his life. Yet there is a touch of the Bavarian in Maurice’s longest purely orchestral work, the diptych Perséphone, written just three years before Stravinsky’s all-too-neglected ballet-oratorio. By a strange coincidence, Maurice’s version would also be staged successfully in 1934. By comparison to Stravinsky’s work, the Maurice piece seems inflated - although it lasts under half-an-hour - and bland. The two panels describe successively Persephone in summer and her abduction by Hades, culminating in a wild gallop to Hades: the only point where the music seems to create any real excitement. This is followed by the desolation of winter and Hades’ eventual agreement to allow his bride to spend half of the year in the sun. What Adriano refers to here as “straightforward and fascinating music” I found turgid and dull, full indeed of the ennui that the conductor asserts it avoids.
There are some pluses on the disc, however. The concluding Fugue for stringed instruments originated as a movement for string quintet - with double bass rather than second viola or cello. Given here in its string orchestral version, it comes across as a well-crafted piece. It seems a shame that it is his only piece for strings, indeed of chamber music at all. He preferred to write operas - there are at least seven - plus a ballet, oratorios and vocal works. The piece that made the greatest impression on me is the overture to his short, two-act comic opera La nuit tous les chats sont gris (“All cats look the same in the dark”). Based on an Italian Renaissance story, it deals with a pair of Venetian wives, neighbours, who discover that their husbands are in love with the other and arrange to switch places at their amorous and wayward spouses’ trysts. All ends well, of course, and Maurice’s overture reflects the light and slightly frivolous nature of the story. It is beautifully orchestrated, too.
Sterling’s sound is very good and the performances by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra are mostly well-played. That of the Fugue does show up a few infelicities of ensemble in the strings.
Guy Rickards
see also reviews by Michael Cookson, Ian Lace and Rob Barnett


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