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Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
Violin Sonata No.1 ‘L’Esprit’ (1901) [22:07]
String Trio (1926) [25:01]
Quintet for harp, flute and strings (1928) [23:04]
Marie-Christine Milliere (violin) and Chantal Riou (piano)
Trio Milliere
Catherine Michel (harp); Thomas Prevost (flute)
rec. August 1988, Eglise Evangélique Luthérienne, Saint-Pierre, Paris (Trio and Quintet) and July 2012, Forgotten Records Studio, Rennes (Sonata)

Jean Cras is one of those niche figures in French music, one who engenders tremendous enthusiasm from his admirers. Infused by Duparc’s influence, richly borne up by his nautical life, explicitly absorbing successive stylistic traits - post-Beethovenian, Wagnerian, impressionist and onwards - he makes for excellent and rewarding listening on disc too. Whilst this disc pursues chamber music, some of which is not wholly characteristic, it too is revealing in others ways of Cras’s slow establishment of his very personal soundscape.
The most diaphanous and exotically ear-titillating of the three works is the Quintet of 1928. Written for harp, flute, and strings this is also the work that speaks most of the sea, in its sway and surge, and in the vital birdsong incarnated by the flute. Cras the sailor, to be sure, but also Cras the creator of delicious little dance patterns too. His textures are ingenious, the writing alternately lithe and captivating; the characterisation vivid at all times. When he doubles the flute and harp lines the sonic allure is tremendous, but it’s never less than that throughout. It’s obvious why the work is such a favourite of harpists.
The 1926 String Trio has strong hints of what one could call Breton syncopation - Debussian too in part, and thematically interweaving. Possibly the ghost of Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet hovers over the slow movement but it emerges more as a kind of oriental chant motif; Alhambran Moorish shadows, perhaps. Then again, Cras is Cras, and he unleashes more popular limpidly songful motifs too. The result is kaleidoscopic and confusing for the formalist who likes to know where he is. Folklore features strongly in the scherzo; this is the most explicitly intoxicating of the four movements, and it’s followed by a Breton fête of a finale, full of incident, metrically flexible, slowing profusely, but unlessening in interest.
The earliest of the works to be played here is the unpublished 1901 Violin Sonata. It’s possible that the performers here are giving it the sonata’s première. The idiom here is a fairly free post-Franckian one, with the violin embodies ‘the spirit’ - in his other string works the viola is the Soul, and the cello the Flesh. Such religious concerns are important to note but equally they need not intrude too deeply. The slow movement is dreamlike interlude and the finale - there are three movements - opens with Franck-like interior imaginings before intensifying through driving piano-rich chordal writing. The violin’s eloquent lyricism impels the work toward a reflective and charged silence. No glorious ending here.
The Sonata is the least characteristic of the three works here and the most indebted to direct influence. It needs careful and adroit advocacy. The violinist Marie-Christine Milliere has done much to bring it to the attention of the public and she and Chantal Riou clearly perceive how to direct it. In truth, though, it will need a violinist with a far better technique and expressive nuance to do the work justice. The dry recording rather exacerbates the flaws. Milliere’s recordings elsewhere are considerably better. Her trio does well by the String Trio and the Quintet, with Catherine Michel (harp) and Thomas Prevost (flute) prominent, is probably the best performed of the three works. Notwithstanding some reservations, then, I’d urge Cras admirers to investigate this disc.
Jonathan Woolf