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Les altistes engagés: Les musiciens et la grande guerre – Vol. 7
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Romance (1914) [5:55]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sonata Op. 11 No. 4 (1919) [16:25]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Légende (1918) [10:25]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Sonate Op. 53 (1915) [28:03]
Vincent Roth (viola); Sébastien Beck (piano)
rec. 2014, Esplanade Hall, Arsenal de Metz
HORTUS 707 [61:15]

This is the seventh in a series titled Les musiciens et la grande guerre (Musicians and the Great War). This commemorates the First World War through a sequence of thematically arranged programmes. Ten have appeared and thirty in all are planned. This one features music for viola and piano by composers who had some direct involvement in that war, hence the title, which translates as “committed viola players”.

Vaughan Williams served as a stretcher-runner in France and Salonika. His Romance has a modal opening which rises to a climax with a four note theme which subsides into melancholy in the viola’s lowest register. A middle section is anguished and chromatic with some eloquent phrases. The sleeve-note suggests that this work anticipates VW’s Pastoral Symphony of 1922. I am afraid this is wishful thinking but it is nevertheless a pleasant, sad piece. VW did not publish it himself and it appeared only in 1962. It is encouraging to hear French artists play Vaughan Williams.

Hindemith served in a regimental wind band close to the front. His work is an early one, the first of his sonatas for viola and piano. Don’t be deceived by the opus number listed: the first three works in Opus 11 are for violin and cello. The construction is strange with two short movements followed by a finale which is longer than the two of them put together. It was written before Hindemith had established his distinctive idiom and in fact is stylistically all over the place. The opening Fantaisie at times echoes Brahms and sometimes Debussy. The Theme with Variations which follows suggests Busoni’s haunting idiom with its equivocation between major and minor and a strange, unfunny kind of humour. This leads directly into the finale, based on a five note theme which is elaborated with considerable eloquence and a grave beauty which does anticipate the mature Hindemith though in a more romantic vein than he allowed himself later. Despite its stylistic incongruities and the sprawling length of the finale I enjoyed this work.

Florent Schmitt was a prolific composer but is largely forgotten now, though his Tragédie de Salome is occasionally recorded. He saw military service in a camp. His Légende sounds as if he had been listening to Eastern European folk music as it seems close to Bartók, or perhaps to the Szymanowski of the Mythes for violin and piano, written at about the same time. It is an attractive and accomplished work and I am glad to have made its acquaintance. Schmitt later orchestrated it but the only available versions of this appear to be in a transcription for saxophone.

Charles Koechlin has also rather faded from view. He worked as a nurse with the Red Cross in the war. His sonata is the most ambitious work here. It opens with a sombre Adagio which the viola lamenting in its lowest register until it is released to soar upwards. The following Scherzo is troubled, like that of Franck’s violin sonata which might have served as a model, but with occasional use of the whole tone scale which gives the agitation an unearthly quality as if it were taking place on another planet. The following Andante is serene, with a long melody over crystalline chords in the piano. This has something of the spiritual quality of the Louange ŕ l’immortalité de Jésus, the final violin and piano piece from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The Final is a struggle with a lumbering theme which gradually becomes more flowing, allowing the piano some elaborate display while giving the viola the chance to draw a long line through this plethora of notes and eventually reach some kind of resolution.

Vincent Roth elicits a wonderfully satisfying warm and lyrical tone from his viola, and Sébastien Beck attacks his often demanding piano part with aplomb. He plays an 1879 Érard piano which had belonged to the composer Gabriel Pierné. I tend not to be a fan of old pianos so if I say I noticed nothing untoward about this one, that may be taken as a compliment. The recording is good and the notes interesting if digressive. There is no direct competition for this programme and the Schmitt and Koechlin works are hard to find, so if it attracts, don’t hesitate.

Stephen Barber




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