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Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Complete Chamber Music - Centenary Edition
Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 13 (1901) [39:55]
Cello Sonata in A major Op. 20 (1909/10) [27:45]
Piano Trio, Op. 18 (1904/05) [36:52]
Quintet for piano and winds, Op. 8 (1894) [34:30]
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 16 (1903) [42:53]
Interview with Harry Halbreich in French with musical excerpts [63:50]
Laurent Wagschal (piano) (opp. 8, 13, 18, 20); Solenne Païdassi (violin) (Opp. 13, 18); Camille Thomas (cello) (opp. 20, 18); Quatuor Élysée (Op. 16); Ensemble Initium (Op. 8)
rec. 2014 Cœur de ville, Vincennes, France
TIMPANI 4C4228 [4 CDs: 68:02 + 71:56 + 42:53 + 65:30]

This Timpani release marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Albéric Magnard. A Parisian by birth, Magnard was born into a wealthy family and had a privileged upbringing. As a pupil at the Conservatoire de Paris he studied under Jules Massenet and Vincent D’Indy. Magnard became a national hero shot and burnt to death defending his house from the invading Germans in the Great War. A number of his scores were destroyed leaving only a limited legacy behind. Belgian musicologist and Magnard biographer Harry Halbreich was responsible for saving around fifteen scores during his researches in 1960. Magnard left only five chamber music scores all contained here.

The first CD opens with the four movement Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 13 which I believe to be one of the greatest of the French romantic violin sonatas. Composed in 1901 after his opera Guercœur the G major Sonata was written for Eugène Ysaÿe who gave the première. The imperturbable partnership of Solenne Païdassi and Laurent Wagschal play beautifully. The first movement Large - Animé is mainly warm and tender in mood with episodes of real passion. Marked Calme the predominantly affectionate second movement is reflective and yearning with an undertow of disquiet contrasted with stormy episodes. Short, at under four minutes, the Scherzo marked Très vif is ebullient and often fiery. The Finale: Large - Animé is the longest movement at twelve and a half minutes. A slow introduction charged with high anxiety gives way to stormy and emotional music dense with intense longing.

Written in 1909/10 the compact Cello Sonata in A major, Op. 20 is cast in four movements and lasts just under half an hour. Written after his opera Bérénice this is amongst the finest of French cello sonatas. It is a highly attractive and compelling work and has been recorded several times. Cellist Camille Thomas with Wagschal, a dedicated partnership, shine in this score, communicating passion and vitality from start to finish. Marked Sans lenteur the starkly beautiful opening movement is played with proficiency and determination. The short second movement Sans faiblir is blustery and restlessly percussive with a central passage of relative calm although an unsettling undercurrent is discernible. Prominently serious in character yet with a conspicuously pining quality the lengthy Funèbre has a middle section of unsettling tension that borders on the aggressive. The Finale: Rondement is stormy and passionate on the surface revealing itself as a veneer over an undertow of solemn yearning.

The second CD begins with the Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 18 from 1904/05. This is conventionally scored for piano, violin and cello. A considerable work in four movements, the booklet notes describe it as less complex than its close predecessor the String Quartet, Op. 16. The trio of Wagschal, Païdassi and Thomas play with impeccable ensemble and eloquence throughout. The dense and unsettling opening movement is marked Sombre. With an overall positive outlook the second movement Chantant is lyrical and summery while the light Scherzo marked Vif, Tempo de valse is appealing and undemanding. The Finale: Largement - Vif is substantial at thirteen and a half minutes and complex too. It's crammed with varied ideas and rewards for the listener. There is a beautifully calm and dreamlike ending.

Next the Piano Quintet, Op. 8 scored for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Composed in 1894 it is Magnard’s first chamber work. Each of the four descriptively titled movements features one of the woodwind instruments: first the clarinet, then the flute, oboe and finally the bassoon. Wagschal and Ensemble Initium are on marvellous form and their direct expressiveness makes for compelling listening. There is a fresh outdoor feel to the opening Sombre with the bold and muted tones giving has an autumnal feel. Warm and relaxing, the slow movement Tendre gives the impression being tucked up indoors on a cold blustery day. By contrast the appealing movement Léger is full of autumnal colours has a fresh and gusty outdoor feel. Fast-moving and breezy the Finale: Joyeux is variegated with writing of a calmer temperament.

The third CD is given over to the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 16 — a substantial work in four movements. A challenging score Magnard was at the peak of his compositional powers when he wrote the work in 1903. In the booklet notes Harry Halbreich makes a bold statement when he considers the String Quartet as “one of the very great string quartets since Beethoven’s late quartets… the most intimidating and the most difficult of his works.” Given impressive advocacy by Quatuor Élysée it is certainly well constructed and, for a late-romantic score, suffers from a certain lack of memorable invention. Commencing with Sonata (Animé) this is bold writing full of emotional tension and unsettling dissonance. Next the Scherzo - Sérénade (Vif) is high spirited and contented in feel. The slow Chant funèbre (Largement sans lenteur Danses) is intensely serious and full of unrelenting emotional tension. Concluding the work, the bold and upbeat Finale: Danses (Vif, populaire) positively shouts with exuberance and energy.

The fourth CD comprises a recent interview with biographer Harry Halbreich by Timpani's founder Stéphane Topakian. It is in French complete with musical excerpts. In the booklet Timpani has provided an English translation of the text of the interview.

On the front cover of the set there is a fascinating picture titled Zeppelins by English artist Charles Spencelayh. This suggested to me Magnard looking out of his house for the advancing German troops. Recorded earlier this year at Cœur de Ville, Vincennes the sound quality is excellent, vividly clear with the piano being especially well balanced with the woodwind and strings.

In 2014 the centenary year of his death the chamber music of Albéric Magnard is wonderfully served by this new release on Timpani.

Michael Cookson