Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
Ma famille bien-aimée (My Beloved Family)
Âmes d’enfants for piano six hands (1918) [14.07]
Premier anniversaire (1919) [5.26]
Quatre Pièces pour violin et piano [16.09]
Trois Chansons Bretonnes (1931) [9.06]
Concerto for piano and orchestra (1931) [24.19]
Alain Jacquon, François Kerdoncuff, Laurent Wagschal (piano), Philippe Graffin (violin), Mélanie Boisvert (soprano), Lionel Peintre (baritone); Colette Cras-Tansman (piano); Orchestre Radio-Symphonique de Paris/Eugène Bigot (Concerto)
rec. Luxemburg Conservatoire, November 2010 and Salle Pleyel, Paris, September 2012; Salle Pleyel, Paris, 6 December 1948 (Concerto)
TIMPANI 1C1200 [70.06]
It was on these very pages, towards the end of 2011 that I read a review of music by a man of whom I had never heard, the Breton composer Jean Cras (Timpani IC1179). I purchased the CD and found a string trio and music in which the harp featured. I was very much involved in writing for harp at that time and found Cras’s music intoxicating and delightful.
The covering notes with that disc indicated that there was already and would be yet more Cras. Indeed on a recent count I found a good dozen discs including orchestral works, mostly on Timpani. The notes for the harp and strings disc centred on the music and included photos of Cras dressed in his naval officer outfit, sometimes seated at the piano.
This new CD, reflecting the family side of the composer’s life, is subtitled ‘My Beloved Family’. Its liner-notes by Tigrane Yergate this time offer us insights into the Cras, the family man and father. To a certain extent we are also told of his other life outside music, his profession as a naval officer but which was not his real calling. There are also some very touching and lengthy quotes from his letters to the family written during his long absences onboard ship. The booklet is also adorned with lovely black and white photos of the Cras family. These are principally of his children and his especially pretty daughters one of whom, Monique, died only recently.
The opening work for instance, Âmes d’enfants (Children’s Souls) was conceived whilst he was on board ship. It’s a three movement suite for six hands: his three beautiful daughters, Colette, who later married Alexander Tansman, Monique and Zerzette. The movements, entitled Pures, Naives and Mystérieuses, are at no point written down to the children’s abilities and maturity. While they are not virtuoso they are very much in keeping with their father’s style and language. This was quite personal but roughly was based around an exploratory tonality. This has a Debussian sense of colour drawn from the whole tone scale and augmented chords, some modality and some use of the pentatonic scale. All this has the usual French sensibility and gentility. It’s utterly enchanting.
Cras did not only have daughters. Quite late on the family had a son, Jean-Pierre. He was never in perfect health and died aged 30. For his first birthday on 1 May 1919 his proud father wrote a surprisingly virtuoso piano solo Premier anniversaire. This is almost an exercise in writing in the whole tone scale and has many of the characteristics mentioned above. It’s quite brilliant and it is to be hoped, now that it has been discovered among the composer’s forgotten papers and published, that it may become better known; it deserves to. Successively for his son’s eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh birthdays Cras composed the Quatre pièces pour violon et piano for Jean-Pierre to play. Again Cras never composes down but these works are obviously not technically challenging. The first is a simple Air varié. As the boy gets older and more experienced on the instrument things become more searching. The second is a Habanera with a slippery melody, easily danced to. The third, Evocation, is the longest and is especially charming. In it the composer indulges his interest in a more impressionist, modal atmosphere. It’s rather like gazing at a painting by Sisley or Monet. Finally the Epilogue has a broad and folk-like melody which at times made me think of Fauré.
The Trois chansons bretonnesare also very personal and the poems set are by Cras. In the first, with its suitably rolling accompaniment, a sailor sees a beautiful girl on the beach and wants to meet her. In the second L’Aveu, with its folk-like melody, he asks the ‘Sweetheart’ if she wants to spend the rest of her life with him. He offers her much finery which she refuses until he offers her his heart. In the third, La Mort, the poet - Cras - has lost his lover in death and ‘remains alone and inconsolable’. At the end he himself dies of a broken-heart. The tragic irony is that these songs, with clear implications for his own happy life with his wife and family, proved to be Cras’s last work: he died six months later of a sudden cancer. I found them beautiful and very moving especially in their division between a male and female voice, almost like an unearthly conversation.
Finally comes the Piano Concerto . I find it quite difficult to make a judgement about this work as the recording, dating from 1948, is really rather rough and the orchestral playing at times quite indifferent. The pianist however is clearly a very fine performer, it’s Colette Cras-Tansman. Even at this distance she comes across as powerful, passionate and committed and quite the best thing on show. The three movement work has an opening of distant rolling timps and an LH piano bass which here struggles to be audible. Its slow intro develops into a moderato section and then into an Animé. The middle movement, marked Très Lent, is emotionally somewhat mysterious but uninvolved although it has some attractive moments of orchestration and a film music feel about it. The finale has a moment, which reminds me of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and has an arresting idea in 5/8 time; 7/8 is also used. It is rather skittish and slides and segues out of the slow movement. I believe that I once heard a fine modern version of the Concerto on the ‘Musique Francais’ label but it may now be difficult to track down.
It seems from the booklet notes that the performers have all worked on previous instalments in Timpani’s Cras Edition and it sounds like it. They clearly understand the subtleties of the style and are totally in sympathy with each other.
I would thoroughly recommend any reader to get to know the music of Jean Cras but I don’t think I would start here. The disc mentioned at the top of the review is as good as any but Timpani brought out in 2000 a disc of the orchestral music including the Piano Concerto. Although I haven’t heard it, it could be a good starting point.
Gary Higginson 

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