Ernest Chausson has always suffered from a lack of exposure. His
friend, the slightly younger Claude Debussy told Chausson he would
never allow himself to venture past his own self-doubt about his
abilities as a composer. He is also one of those composers who
died prematurely in bizarre circumstances. One day in June 1899,
aged only 44, Chausson lost control of his bicycle while travelling
downhill. He crashed into a brick wall and was killed instantly!
Not a prolific composer, Chausson’s early death meant that not
much music was left behind. Of these, a few are heard occasionally,
such as the rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer, the
Poème for violin and orchestra and the lone Symphony heard
here. This useful CD includes his first orchestral work (Viviane),
his last one (Soir de fête), as well as his most notable
one (the Symphony in B flat).
The influence of Wagner - and, subsequently, César
Franck, whose Symphony in D minor makes a favourite coupling
for the Chausson B-flat Symphony - is always far stronger in
Chausson than it ever was in Debussy and this is clearly evident
in these three works. This is most evident in the earliest of
the works on this CD, Viviane. Viviane is a symphonic
poem based on a Round Table legend of Vivian, King Arthur and
Merlin. For such a relatively early work, Viviane is
surprisingly and convincingly assured - no need for Chausson’s
persistent self-criticism here. The recording of this work is
the most recent of the three on this CD and was made after the
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse was awarded the title ‘National’ in 1980. Although
still sounding a little dated this recording does not suffer
from the somewhat thin, papery sound that sometimes plagues
the earlier recordings of the Symphony and Soir de fête.
The 1978 recording of Soir de fête was its
first and today there are still only two other recordings: from
José Serebrier and Yan Pascal Tortelier. To my ears, it is not
one of Chausson’s strongest works and this might account for
the paucity of recordings. However, it receives as committed
a performance as one might expect from Michel Plasson and his
very French-sounding Toulouse Capitole orchestra.
Chausson’s single Symphony is his most recorded
work after the Poème, although one seldom hears it in
the concert hall. Like Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Chausson’s
work is in three movements. The first is a pretty standard but
very attractively written sonata-form movement with a slow introduction,
the second a fairly free-form and deeply-felt Très lent
and the last a large-scale finale which re-uses elements from
the first movement in different guises. Nothing too remarkable
here, but I have always found this Symphony tremendously appealing
since first hearing it through Charles Munch’s 1950s recording
with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – happily still available.
So, how competitive is this Arkiv reissue of an
EMI original? As I said before, the sound is not always as full
and rich as many might like and the timbre of the orchestra
is very French – old style French bassoons, narrow-bore brass
and piquant winds; certainly the sorts of sounds Chausson is
likely to have expected but perhaps not to everyone’s taste.
The exact same programme is duplicated on a Chandos CD with
Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic, along with the
additional Air de danse and Danse rustique from
Chausson’;s incidental music La tempête. This makes the
Chandos CD excellent value – especially with such fine performances
and modern digital sound. Sadly, I fear that for many this current
CD will find itself in the ‘of historical interest’ category,
which is a shame, given Toulouse’s and Plasson’s dedicated pioneering
of lesser-known French repertoire.
The reproduction of the original EMI CD booklet
was not very impressive in my copy – the print was rather patchy
– especially the one for Viviane, which looks as if it
was added on as an afterthought.