Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Prelude and Fugue for piano, JA87A (1935) [4:28]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Piano sonata (1946-48) [25:05]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [25:05]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Le baiser de l’Enfant-JÚsus, from Vingt Regards (1944) [13:59]
Kathryn Stott (piano)
rec. 2014, HallÚ St Peters, Manchester, UK
BIS SACD BIS-2148 [68:37]
Jehan Alain’s tiny Prelude and Fugue is a microcosm of this CD as a whole. Steeped in tradition, and with a classical-era poise, the two short pieces — originally written separately — open with daring harmonies, especially the fugue. It’s an archetypal “old-meets-new” merger of ideas, and an appetizer that gets you good and hungry for the main courses.
These are three of the titans of twen tieth-century French music: Dutilleux, Ravel and Messiaen. Each is represented by a work written in the shadow of one of the world wars. Dutilleux’s piano sonata is a beguiling mixture of Ravel and jazz, with the author’s own brand of modernism mixed into the brew too. The second movement, a slow song, is especially exquisite. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin needs no introduction; nor does one of the climactic sections of Messiaen’s massive cycle, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-JÚsus.
Kathryn Stott deserves much praise for her assembly of the programme, from that perfectly-chosen Alain appetizer to the placement of the older, more familiar Ravel piece between Messiaen and Dutilleux. She sets up a contrast between successive works, which yields both insight and listening pleasure.
She also earns our admiration with her playing, like the simply commanding Dutilleux sonata reading. The piece seemingly never gives her trouble. I was unfamiliar with it, but immediately convinced. Her Ravel Tombeau is a lot like Benjamin Grosvenor’s: absolute command of the prelude’s difficult rhythms, a slow and moody fugue, and a jubilant Rigaudon. Her toccata is maybe a little less speed-demon virtuosic than his, but then again, I saw his performance live.
Where Stott really comes into her own, though, is the mesmerizing performance of Messiaen’s “Le baiser de l’Enfant-JÚsus”. To be clear, I don’t even really like Messiaen. But the trance-like mood of the first few minutes, so carefully controlled by Stott’s performance, draws me in. Given the shattering climax of the piece, it seems entirely correct to perform it separately, as if it were a stand-alone sonata. Both work and performance feel truly epic.
My colleague Dan Morgan praised this recording to the skies, and now I join him. “Luminously played,” he says, “a well planned and magnificently executed recital.” Indeed, and the only thing left to praise is the immaculately engineered sound. Another triumph for BIS and Kathryn Stott, and another delight for us, the listeners.