Guillaume CONNESSON (b. 1970)
Aleph (2007 rev. 2009) [8:35]
Une lueur dans l’âge sombre (2005) [19:20]
Supernova (1997 rev. 2006) [14:40]
The Shining One (2009) [9:05]
Eric Le Sage (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 2-3 July 2009
CHANDOS CHSA 5076 [52:13]
Before listening to this disc I had not heard a single note of composer Guillaume Connesson’s work. This would not have been the case had I had a season ticket to concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. According to their website Connesson’s works have featured in each of the last five seasons. For a composer not yet forty to have the enthusiastic and committed support of such a fine orchestra and conductor must be both hugely inspiring and exciting. The RSNO’s music director Stéphane Denève has had a considerable impact since his appointment in September 2005. He is probably known to music-lovers beyond the concert halls of Scotland through his series of Roussel recording on Naxos – and extremely fine they are too. So when he turns his focus on the work of a younger compatriot composer, and Chandos roll out their top production team and return to Scotland – source of so many of their finest discs – for their first disc with Denève you have to sit up and take it very seriously.
Technically this is stunning. Even though I was not able to take advantage of the Super Audio encoding it is clear this is Chandos playing at the top of their very considerable game. The music is of multi-textured complexity and has a huge dynamic range - the very stuff of audio demonstration discs and so it proves. This is not just about great walls of dynamic sound; there is a great amount of inner detail which the conductor and orchestra are brilliantly able to delineate and which the recording reveals in superbly clear and well balanced sound.
So to the music itself. Three of the four works, although written over a period of a decade from 1997 are grouped together to form the Cosmic Trilogy. Echoes here of Scriabin’s Universe in conception if not execution. There is a conceptual arc to the three works but it should be stressed that each work is independent and can be performed alone – the second part Une lueur dans l’âge sombre – being performed by the RSNO in concert several times in late February 2010. Oddly the RSNO website lists it as the first part and calls the whole work Cosmic Triptych - I can only assume the CD is correct. In the CD numbering Part I is titled Aleph. Aleph is both the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the symbol (apparently!) for infinite cardinal numbers ... and I’m none the wiser what that actually means having read several learned websites. In musical terms it is exactly as described in the liner-notes: “a symphonic dance of life and energy”. Written in 2007 as a wedding present for Stéphane Denève it is eight and a half minutes of sustained exultant orchestral writing gleefully and virtuosically dispatched by the excellent RSNO. The success of the piece relies on the perfect interlocking of the numerous melodic and rhythmic strands of which it is made up. It is a viscerally exciting work written in a wholly accessible contemporary idiom. In the liner-notes the composer describes himself writing music which is: “a complex mosaic of the contemporary world”. This is a very apt description and neatly describes his sound-realm. My only observation, which I admit is based solely on hearing these works in these performances, is that some of the contemporary influences are relatively undigested. Trawling the web for information about Connesson I came across another review of a disc of chamber music. There the reviewer (Patric Standford) wrote “it is easy enough (any fool can do it!) to list the music of which it may perhaps be reminiscent - Stravinsky, Couperin, John Adams, Messiaen, Ravel”. Well, pace Mr Standford, and fool that I am, I had written down Adams (insistent ostinati on woodblocks for example), Messiaen (this movement is very much in the spirit of the 5th movement of the Turangalîla-Symphonie - Joie du Sang des Étoiles) and Ravel – the added note harmony suggesting a latter day Daphnis et Chloé for sure before reaching the end of the disc for the first time. The Couperin escapes me and playing the ‘influenced by’ game is only valid whilst one is getting used to the new sound-world an unknown composer presents to you, the listener.
The central panel of the trilogy is the aforementioned Une lueur dans l’âge sombre and it is also dedicated to Stéphane Denève. This section is in turn divided into three parts that play with only the briefest of pauses. The musical idea here is a representation of the birth of the universe moving as it does from an icy still void into which movement and a sinuous Indian raga-inspired melody is introduced. Quite quickly this builds to a powerful climax again notable for the sheer complexity of the writing – looking over my shoulder for Mr Standford – the use of multiple tuned percussion echoes Messiaen again. Connesson cites film music as another influence and certainly there is an approachable pictorialism in these scores which adds to their appeal. Try about 2:30 into track 3 which has an epic awe-inspiring impact hard to resist. On a purely personal level I have to say that I did not respond as much emotionally as intellectually to these works – there is a mechanical precision about them that gains my respect and admiration but does not move me. As mentioned before there is a physical excitement here which is superbly captured and I would imagine is even more impressive in concert. For my money Connesson relies too much on the opposing extremes of quiet frozen stillness and dramatic kinetic power. The works as presented here offer these states as polar opposites and much of the musical argument is about the movement from one state to the other. The trilogy concludes with Supernova which was the first work of the three to be written. It represents another cosmic big bang – this time the death of a star in a supernova. Again, similar compositional gestures are used (surely that IS some Daphnis et Chloé clarinet writing at 5:10 of track 5 – I can hear Mr Standford tutting again so I must move on) and the final collapse of the star is undeniably exciting.
Combined the three movements play for just over forty minutes. It is not clear if they have ever been performed together in concert. I imagine it would be hugely taxing for the performers to do so and at the risk of repeating myself I cannot praise too highly the quality of the playing here. Connesson clearly delights in writing tricky little complex motivic cells that are all too easy to trip over unless they are really under the fingers. The articulation and clarity of playing from every department of the RSNO is exceptional.
A very similar sound-world occupies the brief nine minute piano concerto ‘The Shining One’ that completes the disc. Here soloist Eric Le Sage is as neatly adept as his orchestral colleagues. It is a more delicate filigree work with the textures light and the tempo fleet. The feeling is closer to the toccata-like moto perpetuo that characterised Aleph. From comments on the RSNO website this has been an obvious crowd-pleaser although it must be tricky to programme given its short length and extreme technical demands. Again we have a dedicated and scintillating performance. It’s my favourite work on the disc.
Translator Stephen Pettitt has struggled manfully with the liner-notes in the original intractable French. However, even he could not come up with anything less unintentionally comic than the interesting and arresting statement which opens the notes; “Guillaume Connesson is irresistibly attracted to the infinitely massive” - to which my answer would be: I hope they are very happy together. What is it about Gallic sensibilities that delights in such florid ramblings? I made the grave mistake of reading the notes before listening to the music. So we are given other choice insights into his compositional aesthetic such as “faraway echoes distantly enshrine the laws of astrophysics”. Sometimes I think insights into the compositional process can hinder rather than illuminate. For those who respond to the music of the composers mentioned above this will prove to be a rewarding and exciting disc. It is as well played and engineered as any you will have heard in a long time. My own instinct is that Connesson has yet to write his finest and most individual work.
A rewarding and exciting disc ... see Full Review