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Betsy JOLAS(b. 1926) B for Betsy
Quatre Duos (1979) [11:20]* Pièce pour (1997) [8:38] Quoth the raven (1993) [5:50]* Pièce pour Saint-Germain (1981) [9:25] Ruht wohl (2011) [4:27]* Episode sixième (1984) [8:37]* B for Sonata (1973) [17:24]
Géraldine Dutroncy (piano); Laurent Camatte (viola)*
rec. Espace Maurice Fleuret, 15-18 April 2012 EDITIONS HORTUS 099 [66:50]
Although some Jolas pieces made an appearance on vinyl, the music of Betsy Jolas has still to receive its proper due on CD. Some may remember a recording of her Quatuor II (soprano and string trio - 1964) released on a now long deleted EMI LP, but the disc under review is the only one entirely devoted to Jolas' music to have been recently released. Mention may however be made of another all-Jolas CD (ADES 205672), actually a re-issue of material recorded during the LP era. It may still be around even if only in second-hand shops.
Betsy Jolas' list of works is wide-ranging. Over her long and fruitful career she composed in almost every genre one might think of. This release of chamber music spans almost forty years of her career. The earliest work was composed as far back as 1973 and the most recent in 2011. It also displays the composer's versatility in writing for specific occasions such as test pieces for competitions or pieces triggered by more personal, intimate concerns. In fact the shorter piano solos recorded here were composed as test pieces: Pièce pour Saint-Germain (1981 for the Yvonne Lefébure's competition in contemporary music for piano) and Pièce pour (1997 for the final examination at the Paris Conservatoire). Episode sixième (1984) is part of a series of works for melody instruments and was written for the International Maurice Vieux Viola Competition. As may be expected the music explores the wide expressive range of the instrument and eschews extravagant technical 'tricks and gimmicks' although it puts considerable demands, both technical and musical, on the performer. Jolas' music is never complex or complicated for the sake of difficulty - expression remains the ultimate aim. This is certainly a characteristic shared by all pieces here. None of them is technically easy but each is well worth the effort.
Quatre Duos for viola and piano is a suite of women's portraits. It recalls earlier models - one may think of Couperin for example - but the origin of the work lies in the first movement L'Ardente. Again this was composed as a test piece for the Conservatoire's viola examination. Having heard it “played quite well by some ten contestants”, the composer decided to expand the work into a four-movement suite.
Quoth the raven, also for viola and piano but originally for clarinet and piano, was inspired by Poe's eponymous poem but also by the death of a close friend. The raven's nevermore phrase finds its musical equivalent in the manner of a short cadence. Composed for these performers Ruht wohl is a “meditation on the gentle refrain of the final cradle song from the St. John Passion of Bach”, a simple but quite effective little piece.
The most substantial work here is B for Sonata composed in 1973. If left unexplained the title might seem somewhat enigmatic for B might stand for B flat or B natural or for Betsy. Not so: it is B for Bali although the music is certainly neither programmatic nor descriptive in any way. It is rather more a matter of piano sounds that may at times suggest Balinese gamelan or many-voiced torrents or whatever the attentive or sympathetic listener might fancy. The music certainly bears the imprint of Jolas' teacher Olivier Messiaen. It is quite personal in its freedom and pure enjoyment of the piano sounds. One cannot but wonder - again - why music of such quality is never heard.
This is a most welcome and rewarding release that - at long last - provides a fine survey of Jolas' output over the last forty years. This should encourage others to look into her far from negligible output. This music definitely repays repeated hearings especially when heard in such sympathetic readings and in such good recorded sound.