Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Marche des petits soldats de plomb (1887) [2:08]
Piano Concerto (1887) [18:44]
Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral (1931) [11:55]
Ramuntcho Suite No.1 (1908) [18:50]
Ramuntcho Suite No.2 (1908) [14:56]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 19 December 2009 (Marche des petits soldats de plomb) and 8-9 January 2010.
CHANDOS CHAN 10633 [67:23]
Gabriel Pierné is one of those composers whose name has long been in the shadow of more popular composers; in this case that of Maurice Ravel, but also of Albert Roussel; all three of whom coincidentally died in the same year. Pierné was certainly no modernist, and he spent more energy on a fine career as a conductor rather than on composing, which he did whilst on summer retreats in Brittany. While lack of fashionable credit might have kept his name in relative obscurity this is no reflection on the innate quality of his work, and this fine recording will do no harm to his reputation.
The programme begins with the Marche des petits soldats de plomb acting as an overture. This first appeared as a piano piece, but Pierné was able to ride its popularity by making a charmingly inventive and once famous orchestral version. The “old-fashioned nursery charm” of this opening is set directly against the grand opening gestures of the Piano Concerto.My only previous experience with Pierné’s C minor piano concerto on one of those BIS ‘twins’ releases, coupled with the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos and with Dag Achatz as soloist. This certainly didn’t make as huge an impression as this spectacular new recording with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The opening effect of the piano chords transforming into orchestral sound is quite magical, and the booklet notes by Gerald Larner correctly identify an anticipation of Rachmaninoff in some aspects of this music. The overall style is high romantic, but with a clarity of expression which carries the listener along as easily as anything by Saint-Saëns, who is also identified as an influential factor in the structure of the piece. Pierné has his own magnificent big tune moments though, and the first movement Allegro is a masterpiece of emotional manipulation – heroic and triumphantly emotional by turns. The central movement is a scherzo rather than a slower centre, the demanding journey of the first movement having already been weighty enough to find us deserving a lighter section. Fleeting and virtuosic piano writing and transparent orchestration give this movement a delightfully balletic feel. This sets us up for the roller-coaster ride of the Finale, which recalls the main theme from the first movement as well as putting a cyclic structure to work which is reminiscent of techniques employed by Pierné’s organ teacher César Franck. This is large-scale and ambitious writing, but avoids becoming heavy through plenty of light and shade contrasts both in material and orchestration, which is frequently quite sparing. The vast range of the recording brings Pierné’s colours to vibrant life, and this combined with such a potent performance grants this neglected concerto a well deserved revival.
A much later work, the Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral contrasts hugely with the romantic overtones of the Piano Concerto. There are elements of neo-classicism in the piece, and with the Parisian air filled with the cultural revolutions of ‘Les six’ and the influx of new kinds of popular music there would have been plenty for an imaginative composer to get his teeth into. While the romantic feel is still present, this is tinged with a palette which allows slide trombones and witty syncopation, swooping film-music gestures and the introduction of an orchestral saxophone. This ‘new stuff’ appears with a slightly coy, almost Elgar-like reserve, but you can sense the older composer enjoying himself immensely, and the closing moments of the work are superbly uplifting.
The name Ramuntcho comes from a novel from 1897 by Pierre Loti. The two suites performed here derive from Pierné’s incidental music from a stage production of the story. This tells of an eponymous hero who returns to his village after military service, only to find his bride-to be in enforced confinement to a convent. The story ends with Gracieuse dying, torn between the choice which she has to make between God and her lover. Pierné’s score delivered more than the rather melodramatic tale would seem to indicate possible, but he made full use of the regional colour in the story, conjuring the pungent Basque atmosphere with confident ebullience in the Overture. There are intensely beautiful moments, such as the scene in Le Jardin de Gracieuse, the interaction of the two main characters depicted by a duet of flutes which move lyrically over a bed of strings, harp and warm wind chords. Moving theatricality is drawn out of La chamber de Franchita, in which the hero’s sick mother lies, close to death. This desolation is punctured by the lively Fandango which follows, recalling earlier village dances. The second suite opens with another sprightly piece, evoking the folk-character of a cider house. The piety and sober gloom of Le Couvent follows, rich in the kinds of parallel progressions which Poulenc used in his opera on the Carmelites. The whole thing closes with a Rhapsodie Basque, which opens with a funereal tread, but gradually picks up tempo in a kind of review of the play in reverse. Whatever the nature of the story, this is very fine music and fully capable of standing alone as a concert work. The perfectly balanced sonorities of the BBC Philharmonic do it magnificent justice.
This is a very fine disc indeed. Beautifully recorded and performed, Juanjo Mena has a seemingly effortless control of every subtlety in these scores, and as previously mentioned the cause of Gabriel Pierné should be greatly enhanced with this release. The biggest item is the Piano Concerto, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s storming of the CD catalogue continues apace. Everything here is well worth acquiring though, and this is a programme with no fillers.
Dominy Clements
Very fine indeed, and a high-quality programme with no fillers necessary.