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René de CASTÉRA (1873-1955)
Chamber Music - Volume 2
Concert, for flute, clarinet, cello and piano (1922) [33:32]
Sicilienne, for cello and piano (1930) [5:09]
Piano Trio in d minor, op. 5 (1904) [37:52]
Linda Hall (piano), Samuel Magill (cello), Lucian Rinando (flute), Dean LeBlanc (clarinet), Elmira Darvarova (violin)
rec. 2011, Edith Memorial Chapel, Lawrenceville, New Jersey

This recording is one of a series of more than a dozen recordings on the Azur label, supported by the Centre International Albert Roussel, dedicated to instrumental, chamber and vocal music of Roussel and his contemporaries. The Centre also promotes an annual festival in north-western France and Belgium. If one needed another reason to visit Normandy, this sounds like a compelling one. I was made aware of the series through a review by Hubert Culot of the third volume of chamber works by Emile Goué. With a number of world premiere piano trios among the releases, I took the plunge.

Some biographical information about René de Castéra would seem appropriate, as I imagine the number of readers familiar with him is rather small. This, and the first volume, may be the only recordings of his music readily available: Arkivmusic, Presto Classical and MDT have no listings for him at all. He was born in Dax, in the Landes Department in south-western France. He attended the Paris Conservatoire, and then was among the first students at Schola Cantorum, where he was a pupil of Albeniz and d’Indy. Composition seems to have been just one of his many activities. He was Secretary of the Schola, a music publisher and critic, as well being part of the artistic and social elite in pre-war Paris. He fought in the battle of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, and afterwards, spent time driving an army truck, like Ravel. The booklet notes are sketchy on his life post-war, but it seems that after a financial crisis in the family, he returned to his native Landes, living in a villa named Pax, on the coast at Hossegor, cultivating an artistic life in the local area, away from a very changed Paris.

The Trio received considerable plaudits from the critics and fellow musicians, such as Alfred Cortot and d’Indy. It is a very substantial piece, the first movement over 14 minutes, and I have already encountered in my survey of piano trios instances of lesser composers creating large structures with very flimsy materials. I’m pleased to report that this is not one of those instances. The first movement overflows with ideas, dominated by two themes, the first a serenely beautiful one, the other upbeat and jolly. A Basque dance is used in the scherzo-like Divertissement second movement. The slow movement, while perhaps a little long, is beautifully nostalgic, and in the best Franckian style, the final movement returns to the themes from the earlier movements, though I would say it is the least effective of the four. Castéra did revise the work a few years later, trimming seventy bars from the first movement, as well as replacing the third movement entirely. The revised version appears in Volume 1, which I certainly will be buying.

Chamber music including wind instruments is not among my favourite listening, and I bought this CD mainly for the trio. In this era of downloading, it can be tempting to simply not include an “unwanted” track or work in the purchase. I didn’t buy this as a download anyway, but if I had missed out on this delightful work, I would have been much the poorer for it. It begins with the piano playing what I can only describe as a cocktail bar melody, with the other instruments joining one after the other over a few minutes. The opening movement (Paysage) is predominantly gentle and reflective, interspersed with a few jaunty episodes led by the flute. It is an evocation of the pine forest and lakes of the region in which he was born. Initial sketches for the work were written in the trenches of the Western front, which given its overall genial mood, is remarkable. Before I listened to this, I had formed the impression that wind-dominated chamber music tended to be light, fluffy, “burbly” and limited in emotional range. How wrong I was.

The Sicilienne was the result of a request by a cellist at the Schola, Edwige Bergeron – she became a professor there, and d’Indy dedicated his cello sonata to her. The work is melancholic, shot through with a glorious melody.

I initially assumed that these recordings were made at the Festival, given the “Collection du Festival Albert-Roussel” banner on the booklet, but as you can see from the details above, that is not the case. A “studio” recording is certainly a bonus, as the ability to do retakes with such unfamiliar material must surely be valuable. The sound quality is a little recessed, but not to the extent where it becomes a problem. The performers put their hearts and souls into this music, and the result is a resounding success. Cellist Magill and violinist Darvarova have recorded two well-received CDs of chamber works by Franco Alfano on Naxos (Cello sonata & trio ~~ Violin sonata & quintet).

Availability of this series is somewhat patchy, and it definitely pays to shop around. AmazonUK has priced them from about £12 to over £21 (this is one of the cheaper ones), and given they are all single CDs, this seems a trifle odd, to say the least. I bought mine from CDBaby, where they were all $US15, and to reduce postage, there was the option, which I opted for, of having the jewel case removed, and the CD placed in a paper sleeve. There is also the download option for $US10, and while the booklet itself isn’t supplied, the full notes are available on the respective pages.

Being a collector of the unsung usually means listening to pleasant but unmemorable music. Only rarely does one uncover a gem such as that which has been unearthed here. While this isn’t brand new – it was released in 2013 – I cannot do other than make it a Recording of the Month, and expect it to be among my Records of the Year.

David Barker


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