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Jacques CHARPENTIER (b. 1933)
Etudes Karnatiques pour le piano – 72 Etudes in six cycles (1957-1985) [194:55]
Interview with Jacques Charpentier conducted by Jean-Yves Bras [13:25]
Anne Gaels (piano)
rec. 1995?, Paris, in the presence of the composer. DDD
Interview in French. No translation provided
3D CLASSICS 3D8018-4 [4 CDs: 67:47 + 60:15 + 66:53 + 13:25]
Experience Classicsonline

The French line of inspiration drawn from exotic climes, legends and philosophy stretches from Rameau's Les Indes Galantes through to Florent Schmitt, Jean Cras, Maurice Delage, and Roussel's Evocations and Padmavati - a work which, in interview with the composer Thierry Escaich, Charpentier recommends strongly. Then there’s Koechlin’s Oriental pieces and Henri Tomasi's desperately neglected Far Eastern orchestral exotics. Messiaen’s Turangalila is very well known but what of the music of Messiaen pupil Jacques Charpentier and his Homeric cycle for solo piano: the seventy-two Etudes Karnatiques?
The Etudes Karnatiques cycle was not the only Charpentier work to open itself to Oriental modes. Over three decades ago the French company Barclays Inédit issued an LP of Charpentier’s Symphony No. 3 Shiva Nataraja and its satellite the Récitatif for violin and orchestra (Devy Erlih, violin, Orchestre Philharmonique ORTF conducted by the composer. 995 009). Sadly this has never made its way to CD. It’s a while since I heard the symphony but the sleeve-note indicates that Karnatic modes and Hindu rhythms are used in a timeless dance depicting the five aspects of Divinity: creation; preservation; destruction, incarnation and freedom. The genesis of the symphony came in 1956 but the Paris premiere took place on 2 March 1969.
I owe it to Mike Herman whose discographies are one of this site’s great strengths that I know that Charpentier has written seven symphonies: No. 1 (Symphonie Breve for Strings, 1958), No. 2 (Sinfonia Sacra pour le Jour de Pâques for Strings, 1965), No. 4 (Brasil, 1975), No. 5 (Et l'Imaginaire se Mit à Danser, 1977) and No. 7 (Idylles d'Apocalypse, 1985). There are also more than ten concertos and concertinos. His Symphony No. 6 for orchestra and organ (1979) was once available on Erato LP STU 71509 issued circa 1980: Marie-Claire Alain (organ), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tamás Vetö. Again this has not been reissued on CD.
Parisian-born Charpentier, in 1956, won a first prize for his Music Philosophy thesis Introduction to the Music of India. His teachers at the Paris Conservatoire were Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen. He had spent most of 1953 in Calcutta learning his subject. This interacted with his Messiaen studies and his fascination with the elder composer's Turangalila. Charpentier has never used Oriental materials for mere local colour. He is preoccupied by the substance of the music, its meaning, its effect and how it can interact with his own creative process.
With more than 150 works to his name, Jacques Charpentier - no relation to France's other Charpentiers - has made a major contribution to French music. this has not stopped his music and standing being eclipsed by those who found their inspiration in the wilder avant-garde.
A meagre scattering of his works can be heard on CD. Solstice recorded the composer playing his own Messe pour tous les temps - Livre d'Orgue on SOCD220. He wrote the hour-long Livre in 1973 for the 700th anniversary of the death of Saint Thomas Aquinas. His Gavambodi 2 for sax and piano is on Globe GLO6049 played by Arno Bornkamp and Ivo Janssen. The Pour Syrinx is played by Bridget Douglas (flute) and Rachel Thomson (piano) on Morrison Music Trust MMT2039. There are some other works as well but isolated amid anthology CDs.
The Etudes Karnatiques, massively ambitious in concept and execution, were not written to any timetable apart from the composer's own. There was no commissioning 'master' and no unholy rush. It was written over a period of almost thirty years. It stands alongside Sorabji's 100 Etudes and Niels Viggo Bentzon's Det Tempererede Klaver not to mention Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano cycles. Indeed Nancarrow's writing is echoed - presumably unknowingly - in the Sarasangi movement of the Fifth Cycle (CD2 tr. 3) and the 'railroad' thunder of Pavani (CD2 tr. 17), the penultimate item of the Seventh Cycle.
The Karnatic system relates to the musical culture of Southern India. The procedure organises the octave into different scales. We are told that under this regime "the octave is divided into two equal tetrachords; C-F and G-C arranged in accordance with the twelve chromatic degrees." This produces 72 modes: "The first class of these modes includes the perfect fourth, giving 36 modes to which correspond 36 relative modes that contain the augmented fourth." The same musical paradigm in 1972 also drew sets of etudes for various solo wind instruments from another French composer Eugène Bozza (1905-1991).
The 72 Etudes in Charpentier’s grand construction are organised into twelve cycles which were written between April 1957 and January 1985. They have been published by Alphonse Leduc. Each of the cycles comprises six Etudes. These are listed at the foot of this review. Three of the twelve cycles (2, 8, 12) are written to be played as a continuous movement and here each occupies a single track. Within that piece there are six named sections but played attacca. The other nine are each in six separately tracked movements ranging from 0:57 to 6:33. Most of the Etudes are between 2 and 3½ minutes long.
The musical style is tough yet intriguing. Charpentier writes with an uncompromising gaze. His gestures are angular (as in Navanita (CD2 tr. 16). There is violence as in the Rupavati section of the second cycle 'comme un seul mouvement musical' and the Dehracankarabharna movement of the fifth cycle. The listener also encounters a stellar otherworldliness (Gayakaprya CD1 tr. 8) equivalent to certain of the piano solos of Urmis Sisask and in the piano part of Finzi's song Channel Firing.
Very rarely does Charpentier touch on the obviously picturesque but perhaps Nagandani, the sixth movement of the Fifth Cycle is an exception with its patterning reminiscent of Godowsky's Java Suite.
Impatience in collision with muscular jazzy syncopation appears in Vakhulabharna (CD1 tr. 9) and in the winged flight of Varunaprya (CD1 tr. 19). This is sometimes mixed with a chiselled Stravinskian abrasion as in Suryakanta (CD1 tr. 12). The Mararangi (CD2 tr. 1) is short and propulsive; terse and impatient. A confiding jazzy hand can be discerned in the Yagaprya, the first section of the Sixth Cycle (CD2 tr. 7).
The writing is also characterised by a willingness to allow time for the piano's resonances to decay and flow. This happens for instance in Jalavarali (CD2 tr. 15) the third item of the Seventh Cycle.
The Fourth Cycle opens with the liquid arpeggiation of Canharadvani (CD1 tr. 14) alternated with percussively stony ritual violence. Kyravani is a fascinating essay with slow gruff angularities, sharp violent gestures and xylophone-style 'whispers'.
In Natabhairavi (Cycle 4 CD1 tr. 15) and Gaurimanohari (CD1 tr. 18) Charpentier makes his closest approach to the angular ritual arcana of Messiaen. It is as if the listener is forced to stare into some incunabula of mysteries. The same effect can be felt in Gangayabhusani (cycle 6 No. 3 CD2 tr. 9).
The Eighth Cycle is in a single movement designated Quasi una Sonata progressing through Stravinskian percussive insistence (1:09) to crystalline cascade ostinati (3.44, 13.22), cloud-hung foreboding (11.00) and ending in a blitz of thunder.
The composer set down a selection of these Etudes on Philips LP 102747 during the 1970s. It would be interesting to compare that recording but in any event the present complete cycle was recorded in the presence of the composer and must be taken to have his imprimatur.
The present 3-D box is rara avis outside France and by no means common even there. Technically the set which was first issued in 1996 has been deleted although copies can still be had at and Now if only someone would rescue the Symphonies 3 and 6 from vinyl purgatory and begin recording the other symphonies and concertos.
This arch of Etudes is a major work of the 20th century. Those who are Messiaen converts need urgently to hear this music. It is most unusual and will appeal to those with resilient yet yielding sensibilities prepared to step out into the unknown region. It would help if you are already at ease with Messiaen and perhaps Nancarrow.
Rob Barnett
CD 1 [67:47]
Cycle 1:
Kamakangi 5:30
Rhatnangi 1:51
Ganamurti 2:19
Vanaspati 2:59
Manavati 3:21
Tanarupi 3:22
Cycle 2 (Comme un seul mouvement musical) 9:54
N atakaprya Kokilaprya
Cycle 3
8 Gayakaprya 4:38
9 Vakhulabharna 1:26
10 Mayamalavagaula 5:10
11 Chakravaka 1:57
12 Suryakanta 1:33
13 Hatakambari 3:34
Cycle 4
Canharadvani 4:19
Natabhairavi 4:58
Kyravani 3:13
Karakaprya 2:40
Gaurimanohari 3:26
Varunaprya 1:22
CD 2 [60:15]
Cycle 5
Mararangini 0:50
Charukeshi 2:26
Sarasangi l: 15
Harikambogi 2:01
Dehraankarabharna 2:56
N aganandini 1:37
Cycle 6
Yagaprya 3:35
Ragavardini l:15
Gangayabhusani 3:01
V agadevari 1:11
Shulini 2:36
Chalanata 2:47
Cycle 7
Salananga 1:20
Salanava 3:35
Jalavarali 4:19
Navapita 1:55
Pavani 1:37
Cycle 8 (Quasi una Sonata - comme un seul mouvement musical) 15:10
S abhapantovarali
Cadi v edamargini
CD 3 [66:53]
Cycle 9
Duvalamberi 4:59
N amanagini 2:33
Kamavardini 1:23
Ramaprya 3:27
Gamanacrya 1:01
Visvambari 2:55
Cycle 10
Syamalangi 4:28
Kanmukaprya 4:31
Krimendra 1:00
Hamovasantha 5:12
Dharmavati 2:15
N ettimatti 2:54
Cycle 11
Kantamani 2:50
Rishava prya 2:05
Latangi 5:08
Vachaspati 0:57
Mabyakaliani 5:11
Chintamani 0:59
Cycle 12 (L’etoile - comme un seul mouvement) [12:57]
CD 4 [13:25] Interview


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