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Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Cello sonata in F sharp minor, op. 66 (1917) [24:39]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Cello sonata, op. 66 (1917) [16:38]
Chansons bretonnes Books 1 & 2, Op 115 (1931) [25:37]
Mats Lidström (cello)
Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. St George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol, UK, July 1997
HYPERION CDA66979 [66:54]

Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Cello sonata in A major, op. 20 (1917) [29:47]
Chansons bretonnes Book 3, Op 115 (1931) [11:31]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Cello sonata in A major, op. 80 (1907) [29:57]
Mats Lidström (cello)
Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. St George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol, UK, October 2000
HYPERION CDA67244 [71:36]

These discs, connected by performers, recording venue and musical content, were released in 1998 and 2003, respectively. Neither was reviewed on MusicWeb International at the time of their issue. I found them while browsing through the Hyperion catalogue to see what I might have missed. I noted that both were shown as “Archive Service”.

The Hyperion Archive Service is “for CDs which have been deleted and where the musical content is not otherwise available”. They can be bought as downloads, but if you want the physical CD, it can only be obtained through Hyperion and will be specially made as a CD-R (burnt on a PC) unless you can track down a secondhand copy.

Evidently these two discs have fallen into the void where sales weren’t sufficient to justify to “pressing” another batch - if that is what is done with CDs - nor to reissue them on the budget Helios label. Given the quality and rarity of the music, that is very surprising.

These four composers were born within a decade of each other either side of the middle of the nineteenth century, hence belonging to the era of Ravel and Debussy. They are not first-rank composers, but nor are they are unheard of. Magnard is perhaps the least well-known, and more remembered for his unfortunate death, burnt to death while defending his house against the advancing German army. While each work presented here was composed in the twentieth century, the music is late Romantic/Impressionistic and very French. None of the works is cited as a first recording, though in the case of the Koechlin works, there is only one other recording that I can find and it is more recent.

Hyperion has recently released some more of the chamber of music of Gabriel Pierné, a huge piano quintet reviewed here. His cello sonata was composed in one movement but with four sections separately tracked here. The first section – Lent – occupies almost half the more than twenty minute span, and is a melody-rich meander with a few almost lazy outbursts of energy. The second and fourth sections contain the only fast music, but Lidström tends to treat the Animé marking as more impassioned and less animated than I might have expected. It is an observation that recurs elsewhere.

I think this is my first exposure to the music of Charles Koechlin. It is certainly a heady mix of late-Romanticism, Impressionism and modernism. The sonata is on a much smaller scale than the Pierné, with a gradual progression from gentle pastoralism into much wilder areas by the end. The first two movements are mesmeric in their predominantly slow tread. According to the Hyperion booklet notes written by the cellist, the score requires “absolute evenness in sound and lack of expression”. There is also a pppp marking at one point, which requires immense control on the part of the performers.

If I have a reservation, it is with the final movement, marked allegro non troppo, which begins at a tempo little different to the first two and doesn’t really accelerate throughout. Again, the fast tempo seems to be substituted for passion. It does provide for a good contrast with the animated, rather wild section that follows, but without having the score in front of me, I wonder if is really what the composer intended. I note that in the only other currently available version – Peter Bruns and Roglit Ishay on Hänssler Classic CD98.258 – this movement is almost three minutes shorter, and a brief preview reveals much more animation at the start. I will be tracking down this recording, which also includes the Chansons bretonnes and the Debussy sonata.

The Chansons bretonnes are spread across the two discs, because the existence of the third book was not known to the performers until after the first recording, when they visited the son of the composer, who gave them the manuscript. They are a delightful set of miniatures, based on popular songs from Brittany, exhibiting a wide range of emotions.

The Magnard goes immediately into my list of “Unheralded Masterpieces” – it is quite a while since I have been so impressed on first listening to a piece of music. There is a real directness in its language, while being very obviously French. The French label Timpani has released a set of the complete chamber works of Magnard, which I will certainly be purchasing and which will soon be reviewed here.

Widor is best known for his organ compositions, especially the Toccata from Symphony No. 5. Not being an aficionado of the instrument, his music is unfamiliar to me. The sonata is, duration-wise the largest of all at just under thirty minutes, but such is the skill of the composer that the scale is not obvious. This may be helped by a lighter, more sprightly approach from the performers. The opening allegro moderato is taken as specified, the closing allegro vivace just that. The writing for the piano is possibly more interesting than that for the cello; given Widor’s main musical preoccupation, this is perhaps not surprising.

Every one of these works has given me much pleasure. I do suspect that there may be other, perhaps better, ways of approaching them, but the passion and intensity of these performances are convincing.

If these were new releases, I would consider giving the Magnard disc in particular “Recording of the Month” status. Their descent into “out of print” is incomprehensible. Perhaps this review, and any requests to the Archive Service that it might generate, could prompt Hyperion into releasing them on the Helios label. If so, the small effort in writing these few words will have been worth it.

David Barker