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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 64 (1915/16) [35:06]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Five Préludes for piano from set of 12 Préludes, Op. 36 (1914/15) [18:51]
Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 42 (1917/18) [34:44]
Tamara Atschba (piano), Louise Chisson (violin), Matthias Adenosine (violin), Alexander Znamensky (viola), Christophe Pantillon (cello)
rec. 2014, Ehrensaal der Militärpfarre St. John Nepomuk, Vienna, Austria
GRAMOLA 99040 [88:27]

With this release titled ‘1914’ the French Cultural Institute, Vienna commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in partnership with Gramola. These works from the pens of French composers Charles Koechlin and Louis Vierne were all written during the First World War.

Charles Koechlin, a native of Paris seems to have had a hopeless obsessive personality. He was certainly fixated on the stars of the early Hollywood ‘talkies’ especially Lilian Harvey. He wrote over one hundred pieces for her including L'Album de Lilian. Others included Ginger Rogers (Danses pour Ginger), Jean Harlow (Épitaphe de Jean Harlow), Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

Koechlin wrote his four movement Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 64 in 1915/16. It bears a dedication to his teacher Fauré. It’s an impressionist work that seems impervious to the horrendous events that were happening around him. Like his Suite Légendaire, Op. 54 the Violin Sonata is sometimes subtitled La nuit féërique (The Night of the Fairies). Played impressively by violinist Louise Chisson and pianist Tamara Atschba this appealing score is light in texture. The opening movement Calme is reflective and is tinged with a sense of pining. According to the booklet notes the Scherzo “seeks to lead the listener’s imagination into the vicinity of a myth-enshrouded forest.” The flowing violin line of the Scherzo is engaging and meets the piano part where its raindrop effects are prominent. With the indication Nocturne, grave et féërique (nocturne, serious and magical), the third movement Andante is serious but not especially magical. At over thirteen minutes the substantial Finale, Très modéré is infused with the spirit of folk-song. I don’t find the writing here particularly “cheerful” although the notes writer thinks otherwise. Here the weight and tension of the textures tighten and relax by turns. Throughout I felt an undertow of seriousness and profundity.

Poitiers-born but a Parisian citizen, Louis Vierne was almost blind for most of his life; becoming totally blind in his later years. Vierne’s son Jacques was executed by a German firing squad in 1917 aged only 17 years. Vierne also lost his brother René later in the war.

Vierne wrote his set of Twelve Préludes for solo piano, Op. 36 in 1914/15. The Twelve Préludes are more virtuosic and Romantic in style by comparison with the impressionist music of his older contemporary Debussy. Here soloist Tamara Atschba with unerring sensitivity plays a selection of five Préludes from the Op. 36 set. This music is enjoyable but rather lacking in originality. I could sense various sources of motivation in the Préludes especially Chopin but without the same quality of inspiration. The most memorable is No. 3 Présentiment - dark in mood and agitated in character. Also enjoyable is the short No. 10 Sur une tombe (On a grave) with its beautiful romantic melody so calm and refined.

Vierne wrote his masterpiece, the Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 42, in 1917/18 in memory of his son so tragically killed by the Germans. Incidentally, Nadia Boulanger played the piano for its première in Paris. It’s a marvellous and vital work in three substantial movements: energetic and full of burning intensity. The opening movement marked Poco Lento - Moderato has a lovely brooding melody repeated in turn. The central movement Larghetto sostenuto seems cheerless and isolated at first before developing a turbulence and intensity which felt like being chased in fear of one’s life. Boldly imposing, the emotional Finale: Maestoso - Allegro risoluto is a stormy outpouring of biting pain and suffering.

The resolute performances on this release are compelling and communicate a wide range of often intense emotions. The security of group intonation is resolute with an appealing tone production from each instrument. Pianist Tamara Atschba and first violin Louise Chisson play beautifully and display with real insight. Since its release in 2001 I have often played and enjoyed the fine account of the Vierne Piano Quintet, Op. 42 from Stephen Coombs and Chilingirian Quartet on Hyperion (c/w Hahn Piano Quintet). This new account on Gramola is quite outstanding and I now consider it my first choice recording.

The Gramola engineers have excelled in providing warm clear sound. They splendidly achieve the notoriously difficult balance between piano and strings. At 88:27 this is the longest timing of any single CD I have come across. Both the Koechlin Violin Sonata and Vierne’s masterwork the Piano Quintet are certainly worth getting to know especially in these excellent performances.

Michael Cookson