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Maurice EMMANUEL (1862-1938)
The Six Sonatines (1893-1926) [58:04]
Laurent Wagschal (piano)
rec. April 2012, Vincennes, Coeur de ville
Includes DVD called ‘Maurice Emmanuel; La Rumeur du monde’, a film produced by Anne Bramard-Blagny and Julia Blagny. No DVD specifications provided.
TIMPANI 1C1194 [58:04 + DVD: 54:00]

Maurice Emmanuel was an exact contemporary of Debussy but his quietly revolutionary musical mind worked in a different way to his much more lauded compatriot. Emmanuel’s music was saturated in Burgundian soil and it embraced folklore, carillon and modes in a progressive absorption of influence and sound world. The six Sonatines are the perfect focus of attention to consider the ways in which he moved from folk song to Hindu modes and thence to a very personal relationship with baroque dance forms.
In a sense all of Emmanuel’s music was rooted in dance of one kind or another. The First Sonatine of 1893 shows his stylised way with the chansons bourguignonnes which he alternates with carillon for which he drew on various chimes from churches of his experiences, not least Notre-Dame de Beaune. The music is playful but never simplistic. Four years later his second sonatine is a three-movement pastorale saturated in birdsong. Messiaen was one of Emmanuel’s most eminent pupils, though the use to which the pupil put birdsong was very different from Emmanuel’s more Beethovenian richness. A long gap followed until the 1920 Third Sonatine and now the diction is more dissonant and abstract, though the attractiveness and immediacy of the music no less compelling. The Fourth is perhaps the most well-known because it embraces Hindu modes. Dedicated to another pianistic pioneer, Busoni, it’s a work that follows in the heels of Roussel and Holst, and offers constant reward for both listener and performer. The longest of the Sonatines is the Fifth, ‘Alla Francese’ in which Emmanuel conjures up a genuine dance suite starting with an overture and ending with a Gigue. This French Suite becomes, in effect, a Burgundian Rameau. It was dedicated to Robert Casadesus. The last Sonatine, dedicated to Yvonne Lefébure, is both technically demanding and also radiant, both witty and dynamic.
There have been a number of intrepid Emmanuel pianists of late. Of them Laurent Wagschal is now one of the most authoritative, and listeners who may only have come across Peter Jacobs’s Continuum disc [CCD1048] now have a different point of view. To put the matter crudely, and this is very crude, if Jacobs is the Marguerite Long of Emmanuel pianism, Wagschal is the Alfred Cortot. Jacobs is consistently lighter, more reserved, clarity conscious and sparing of pedal. Wagschal uses far more pedal, his chording is deeper, and heavier, and more romanticised. Thus the First Sonatine is much grander and more externalised with Wagschal, a touch wittier with Jacobs. Peter Jacobs’s bird calls are clearer in the Second where, perhaps surprisingly, one finds Wagschal pushing on a bit impatiently in the slow movement, one of Emmanuel’s most beautiful. Jacobs stresses the sheer modernity of the Third by playing up its dryer qualities: Wagschal is the more evocative. Both explore the modes of the Fourth in complementary ways, in accordance with their differing aesthetic positions throughout. Wagschal is almost always faster than Jacobs in the Fifth but both play beautifully. So they do so as well in the final sonatine.
There is a bonus with this disc which is a DVD film. It’s something of a missed opportunity because it’s desperately short of real biographical bite. The most interesting contributor is the composer’s elderly granddaughter, who speaks with clarity and precision about the influence of Burgundian folklore, grape-pickers’ songs, of how Emmanuel freed the music from the ‘Tyrant C’, the use of Greek music, modes and medieval influences.
There’s a very brief interview with Dutilleux, a student of Emmanuel, but he has nothing much to say about his teacher, noting only that Messiaen studied longer with Emmanuel. There is a lot of windy stuff in authentic philosophical French style from a couple of musicians. What’s charming in an Eric Rohmer film is thoroughly tiresome when peddled by musicians. It’s best to watch performances by Wagschal of some of the Sonatines - all of No.1 though it’s bisected by interviews, and movements from some of the others. He and violinist Alexis Galpérine play the Suite on Greek themes. Fortunately Galpérine, guilty of some of the worst drivel in his interview, plays the violin well enough.
I would concentrate on the Sonatines and treat the DVD as a frustrating adjunct. As for a choice between the Jacobs and Wagschal, I suppose it’s a case of Cortot or Long, and which approach is the more appropriate and significant in this music. Sometimes Jacobs’s sec approach works very well, at other times Wagschal’s greater tonal breadth is the more compelling. I’m able to enjoy both.
Jonathan Woolf