If I tell you that La Sonatine is a children
choir from Belgium’s “Deep South”, you will think that this
release is yet another charming ‘visiting card’ programme primarily
put together to please the children’s families. However a quick
look at the above-listed details will show that this is a nicely
balanced programme featuring several works for children’s choir
by composers from differing generations and musical horizons.
Moreover, there are four works by Belgian composers.
Jean Absil was a
most distinguished composer with a considerable output to his
credit. His first acknowledged work, the Symphony No.1
Op.1, dates from 1921 and his last completed piece,
his Piano Concerto No.3 Op.162, was composed in
1973. He was also a highly regarded teacher. From the start
of his composing career, he was strongly attracted by the music
of his contemporaries including Milhaud. His influence may be
heard in Absil’s polyrhythms and polytonality. The often no-nonsense
music may be considered rather stern and often strongly uncompromising.
However, next to his symphonies, concertos and orchestral works
of all sorts as well as choral or vocal works (including operas),
he also composed a good deal of music for young performers.
There are for example some didactic pieces for piano but – most
importantly – a number of superbly crafted works for children’s
choir. Several of these works exist in a version with piano
accompaniment as well as one with chamber orchestra: Printemps
Op.59 (1944), L’album à colorier Op.68
(1948), Chansons plaisantes – Book 1 Op.88 (1955)
and Book 2 Op.94 (1956), Petites polyphonies
Op.128 (1966) and, of course, Le Cirque Volant
Op.82 (1953). In all these works, Absil managed to challenge
his young singers, without ever putting extravagant technical
demands upon them. The results are highly entertaining and gratifying,
making it all well worth the effort. In Le Cirque Volant
Op.82, Absil sets simple, though never simplistic words
by Etienne de Sadeleer with whom he collaborated on several
occasions. As might be expected, this short cantata for narrator,
treble voices and chamber orchestra tells of a pleasant afternoon
in a circus. After the narrator’s hectoring introduction, the
various movements evoke pumas, a tightrope dancer, a young girl
riding her pony, clowns (these are rather sad ones), a handful
of undisciplined dogs and a fakir. The whole show ends with
the uproarious arrival of Buffalo Bill! Absil devised a splendidly
varied score full of nice, subtle allusions; always avoiding
any all-too-easy ‘circus music’. The whole is very funny and
full of humour, although the composer allows for some tender
moments of real emotion, especially in the clowns section. Le
Cirque Volant is delightful and clearly deserves to
be heard. This recording of the orchestral version is a première.
This disc is a typically
Belgian affair, for Absil was a French-speaking Belgian whereas
both Frits Celis and Vic Nees are Flemish composers. Since his
retirement, Celis has composed - and still does - quite a lot
in almost every genre, except opera. Recently he has composed
several short works for treble voices, of which the lovely lullaby
Slaapt, slaapt, kindtje slaapt Op.54 No.2
was composed in 1998 for one of his little-daughters. Vic Nees
is often better-known as an expert and often adventurous choir
director. He is also a very fine composer of substantial choral
works, some of which have recently been available in commercial
recordings. Here, he is represented by two short, contrasted
choral works. Musica, solamen et gaudium has a
nice dance-like movement, whereas Ave, Regina
Caelorum is appropriately more restrained.
Earlier in this
review, I mentioned Absil’s affinity with Milhaud, who in fact
wrote the preface to Absil’s short study Les postulats de
la musique contemporaine. Milhaud’s Un petit
peu d’exercice Op.133 for treble voices and piano
is a lively and amusing setting of words by his lifelong friend
Armand Lunel. This lovely work is not unlike Absil’s cantata
- youngsters preparing for a sport outing with the clearly avowed
aim to take part in the forthcoming Olympic Games! - and abounds
in spontaneity and freshness.
The final work here
is, as far as I am concerned, a curiosity and a nice surprise
too. It is not known when Delibes composed his Messe brève
for treble voices and organ. The music is beautifully written
for the voices, often memorable and quite effective for all
its apparent simplicity and as befits a Messe brève.
I must, however,
mention that texts are not included in the insert notes. Apparently,
biographical information concerning the composers and the texts
are available at the choir’s website; but I did not find anything
like that when browsing the site. I mentioned this to Jean Lambert.
By now, this information might be available on the site.
What comes clearly
through, is the obvious enjoyment of all these youngsters as
well as their commitment in tackling this often challenging
programme with communicative enthusiasm. This is a really lovely
disc that I warmly recommend for the refreshing variety and
quality of the music and for the excellent singing and playing.
It is far more than just a ‘visiting card’. Very fine music
making that deserves to be encouraged.