French composer Jean-Michel Damase died last year at the age of 85. He was a student of Büsser and Dupré and at nineteen won the Paris Conservatoire's first prize with his Quintet while his cantata Et la Belle se reveille
secured the Prix de Rome.
He was a prolific producer of music; but what kind of music? Damase can loosely and a bit crudely be grouped with Françaix, Tournier, Poulenc and Milhaud when he is in lighter vein. He is no purveyor of dissonance. When I greeted a Melba CD
of his Horn Concerto and Rapsodie
in 2009 I said that we were in need of more orchestral Damase and urgently. It has taken a while but here is close-on eighty entrancing minutes of Damase.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is in three movements which encompass insouciant charm, a swirling Ravelian buoyancy and a smoothly melodious, bouncy finale. If you enjoy the Poulenc piano concertos then add this one to your shortlist. The Flute Concerto has a magical fluttery Allegretto, a shaded mystical Andante with a most touching tune and a flighty Allegro. Everything is most transparently orchestrated and the solo and ensemble playing in this and in the piano concertante works is well up to the very best standards. It would be easy to represent this music as facile but there are depths and subtly shaded surprises along the way. The Concertino is up to the mark with concisely expressed ideas and a romantic accent that even drifts into Rachmaninov territory. It trifles with dissonance at track 1, 3:53. A drifting dream of a bluesy pavane marks out the central Adagio. Then comes a quick-flowing Allegro which smiles and sighs as it sprints by - with a touch of Ronald Binge in the string writing.
Finally we reach the 1952 Symphonie. This three-movement work is the earliest Damase score here. It makes a break from the style of the other works. It is grave and dark-hearted with a sometimes tight-lipped indomitable air. There's even a touch of Vaughan Williams in the air (tr. 10, 2:40) - a long-spinning melody with acre-deep lung power. This moves into a nightmare redolent of Rubbra at 4:30 but this fades on a shallow gradient to a pre-echo of the peacefully easy, jog-trotting tune that ends the first movement in the setting sun. The Adagio is very much in character and is similar at times to Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The Damase strings glimmer more piercingly. The central movement has a mesmerisingly steady Holstian pulse. The finale is rhythmically active with a serenade melody floated over brusquer string writing. The darkness of the first movement is subdued now and the spirit of the music more in the nature of the concertos.
Damase's mother was the harpist Micheline Kahn who played in premieres of works by Caplet and Fauré not to mention the premiere of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro
. The Harp & Co CD of Damase's harp-centred works should be well worth exploring: Rachel Talitman's Harp & Company (505018) Damase chamber music for harp and Damase harp concertos (505056).
The helpful notes by Nigel Simeone are fittingly enough in French and English.
The performances are unfailingly stylish and spot-on. All magnificently presented as you would expect from Dutton.