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Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre
Volume XI - Chant de Guerre
Florent SCHMIDT (1870-1957)
Chant de guerre Op.63 (1914) [4:55]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
In memoriam Op.63 - quatre improvisations for harmonium (1919) [16:18]
Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Pagine di guerra Op.25, for piano & harmonium (1915) [7:59]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Innere Stimmen Op.58 - 8 Characterstüke for harmonium(1918) [19:52]
Aymé KUNC (1877-1958)
Penseé musicale (1916) [9:13]
Ensemble Double Expression (Sandrine Chatron (harp), Sonia Sempéré (soprano), Jérôme Granjon (piano), Emmanuel Pélaprat (direction; harmonium)
rec. Auditorium of Philippe Gaubert de Cahors Conservatory Lot France, 4-7 August 2014
HORTUS 711 [61:45]

Volume XVI - Verdun, Feuillets de Guerre
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Les Dernières penseés (6 Ballads française No.5) (1921) [5:27]
Paul LADMIRAULT (1877-1944)
La Petite bague de la trancheé [4:19]
Jacques de la PRESLE (1888-1969)
Ô Morts [2:35]
Henry FÉVRIER (1875-1957)
Mimi Pinson met sa cocarde (Les Chansons de la Woëvre No.4) [2:17]
Chanson à ma mie (Les Chansons de la Woëvre No.5) [3:39]
Octobre (Les Chansons de la Woëvre No.8) [3:22]
La Lettre (Les Chansons de la Woëvre No.7) [3:24]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
La Balançire (5 petites chansons No.1) [2:00]
Nuits de grand vent (5 petites chansons No.2) [0:49]
Aux morts de Vauquois [3:30]
Mon Petit bateau (5 petites chansons No.3) [1:47]
Un Bon petit garçon (5 petites chansons No.5) [1:28]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
In una selva oscura (Le Vieuex coffret No.3) [2:49]
Solitude [3:54]
Prière normande [3:26]
Pierre VELLONES (1889-1939)
Lettre de chez nous [2:51]
Alfred BRUNEAU (1857-1934)
Le Tambour [8:02]
Jacques PILLOIS (1877-1935)
Il est un air ... (Feuillets de guerre book 1 No.1) [2:55]
Mi-brise, mi-brume (Feuillets de guerre book 1 No.2) [1:03]
Vincent SCOTTO (1874-1952)
Les Tourneuses d'obus [2:42]
La Trancheé aux étoiles [3:38]
Fernand HALPHEN (1872-1917)
Vieille Chanson [1:45]
Françoise Masset (soprano), Anne Le Bozec (piano)
rec. no information supplied
HORTUS 716 [67:56]

The French label Editions Hortus is relatively small and specialised but with its series Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre it is building a collection worthy of comparison with many another larger and better known label. The concept is essentially brilliantly simple: Art conceived as a response in some way to the devastating consequences of World War I. In the main the discs have concentrated on smaller ensembles, solo singers or chamber works but Volume X - which I made a disc of the year - featured concertante works written for the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Unsurprisingly, Hortus have favoured French performers and a subsidiary benefit of this series has been to hear many unfamiliar but very fine performers giving such convincing and committed renditions of this largely unfamiliar music.

The two latest volumes that I have heard - XI and XVI - reinforce the good impressions. Volume XI is titled Chant de Guerre and features the Ensemble Double Expression. To say this group has an unusual line-up is stating the obvious; soprano, harp, piano and harmonium. The full complement of performers appear only in the first and last works on the disc with the keyboard instruments accounting for the remaining repertoire. Furthermore, those vocal works are performed in modern transcriptions for the current ensemble as opposed to their orchestral originals. With the exception of Aymé Kunc, all of the composers are familiar names but most of the music is receiving a world premiere recording - in these formats at least.

Florent Schmitt's Chant de guerre opens the recital. Given the excellence of the overall production and the liner in particular it is a shame that the texts for this vocal work has been omitted; the Kunc is in fact a wordless vocalise. As mentioned this is a transcription of the original work - the vocal score can be viewed on IMSLP - for solo voice (soprano or tenor - but the male option might seem more appropriate in context), male chorus and orchestra - but I cannot trace any recording of the work in its original form which I would imagine to be rather impressive. That is not to imply that this current version is no better than "making do". From the outset, the combination of voices is both highly effective and very beguiling. The work sets a poem by Léon Tonnelier which in heroically rousing terms calls Mother France to arms. This was early in the War, after all, when the perceptions of "the pity of War" were yet unformed. Schmitt's skill is that the work does not descend into tub-thumping patriotism; it's impressive and beautifully performed. The blend of the three instruments is a delight which is a tribute to the quality of the arrangement, engineering and indeed the playing. The liner lists the instruments as a 1912 Érard harp, an 1899 Érard grand piano and a rather glorious 1898 Mustel harmonium. Enjoyable as the entire programme is, my only sorrow is that there are not more opportunities to hear all three instruments together. I have looked in vain online for an English translation of the Tonnelier poem, along the way I found the Cubist painter Albert Gleizes' portrait of Florent Schmitt which he titled Chant de guerre.

The disc's second work, Joseph Jongen's In memoriam, places the harmonium centre-stage as a solo instrument. The four-movement work subtitled 'Improvisations' was conceived for the "art harmonium" and as such the recording here is the world premiere using that instrument as opposed to a standard organ. If in your mind's ear you think of a harmonium as a poor-man's organ, all wheezing reeds and tremulous vox humana then think again. Victor Mustel raised the construction of harmoniums to a whole new level with his harmonium d'art which allowed for keyboard virtuosity as well as a wide dynamic and tonal range. All of which are amply demonstrated by Emmanuel Pélaprat during this recital. The four movements of Jongen's work are reflective and have a simplicity that matches the character of the instrument. Here, as throughout the programme, the harmonium's action is occasionally audible but not in any greatly disturbing manner. Emmanuel Pélaprat's playing is a model of sensitivity and this group of pieces emerges with a gently sorrowing power that is rather beautiful.

Interesting to juxtapose them against Casella's Pagine di guerra. Collectors might well have encountered this work in its later orchestral guise most recently as part of the Naxos survey of the composer's work. The original version is for piano four hands but the version presented here purports to be a new transcription for piano and harmonium. The reason I say 'purports' is because for the life of me I cannot hear the harmonium here - this sounds like the piano four hands version. Putting aside the question of the version I find it fascinating to hear this work shorn of its orchestral glamour - the curious fusion of a Debussian impressionism and a Stravinskian angularity is all the more evident. Casella was inspired to write these musical pictures from viewing newsreels and they are certainly pictorial with both versions casting interesting light on the material. The two-keyboard version provides a strong and dynamic contrast to the rest of the mainly inward music.

The largest piece performed here is the Eight Character Studies 'Inner Voices' by the German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. According to the liner Karg-Elert wrote extensively for the harmonium and this work, dating from 1918, is his last. Again there is a simplicity to the music that is very appealing. The melodies occasionally risk falling over into sentimentality - an impression the sound of the harmonium somehow reinforces especially when the vibrato-laden vox humana stops are deployed. In the midst of the slower music there are two rather charmingly playful pieces: Vergnügter Tag (No.4) and Scherzino (No.6). The former reminded me rather strongly of Korngold and his use of the harmonium in his score of incidental music to Much Ado about Nothing which premiered just a couple of years after the Karg-Elert. Another liner mystery: No.9 - Deingedenken (Your memorial) is marked as "with voice" but no voice is present in this version. The score - again viewable on IMSLP - does indicate "performable without voice" but given the presence of the beautiful voice of soprano Sonia Sempéré this seems like a missed opportunity. The cycle closes with the longest single movement Im Mitternacht and a rather beautiful farewell it is too, the harmonium reaching a powerful and impassioned climax at around the 5:00 mark before sinking back into slightly sentimental calm.

The recital concludes with Aymé Kunc's Penseé musicale which is given again in a transcription and features the harp as the prominent instrument with Sempéré's part a wordless vocalise which supports the melodic lines. Kunc was born and died in Toulouse and was director of the Conservatoire there for thirty years from 1914. This is an appealing work and again is beautifully performed with the harp given plenty of opportunities to display. There's no lack of skill shown here; nevertheless this version does make me want to hear the original.

This Editions Hortus series is marked by high quality production values which cover all aspects of production, presentation and performance. The choice of interesting often moving archive photographs which are used on the cover, liner and even the disc itself is a small example of the care taken. There is an especially poignant picture in the booklet showing a group of soldiers in a forest glade gathered around a harmonium with a contemporary superscription: "The harmonium from the church at Mesnil-sous-les-Côtes saved from the bombardment - Le Bois Haut - between Eparges and the trenches at Calonne". The consistent colour scheme for the series - a French military grey is equally appropriate. Some occasionally clumsy translation into English lets down the French/English liner as well as some careless proofing. The timing of the entire Karg-Elert set is transposed onto the first piece alone but there's also the confusing mislabelling of editions as indicated above. These are however minor concerns when set against the very real musical and human value of this disc.

Volume XVI in the series is more of a traditional song recital featuring some twenty songs by ten different composers. Alongside relatively familiar names such as Gabriel Pierné, Reynaldo Hahn and André Caplet are composers new to me including Paul Ladmirault, Henry Février and Jacques Pillois amongst others. Indeed the disc features some eleven world premiere recordings. Presentation is very similar to Vol. XI with the exception that the booklet is fixed to the inside of the front cover and this time - albeit in the original French only - full song texts are provided. Unfortunately, finding English translations of the poems online is rather tricky so much of the impact of the texts depends on one's own command of the original language - mine is distinctly rusty.

Another shared characteristic is the artistic excellence of the disc. Soprano Françoise Masset might not have the most sheerly beautiful voice but she is fully alive to the expressive range of these songs and is able to carry the narrative well. On occasion, when she is required to speak lines of text, she does it without the stilted delivery that often plagues singers 'acting'. In all of this she is aided by the superbly sensitive piano accompaniment of Anne Le Bozec that is a delight in itself. This is helped in no small degree, I suspect, by the beautiful 1920 Pleyel piano she plays upon.

As previously, Hortus title the disc in relation to the items it contains, here Verdun, Feuillets de Guerre. The battle at Verdun was an especially bloody one for the French Army, lasting for much of 1916 from February to December. It resulted in over 700,000 casualties on both sides of which over 262,000 were dead or missing. With such huge numbers involved it should be no surprise that many poets and composers were directly involved in the battle or its aftermath. The programme of this disc brings together songs by those caught up in the particular horror of this battle and in doing so the programme planners have forged a sequence of songs of individual interest but collective power and emotion. A secondary theme to the programme is the role of female singers in the War effort to perform for the troops - often right at the front - and bolster morale. Hence the cover image, re-used on the disc itself, is of the singer Marthe Chenal in a tableaux representing Honour and Homeland. That this kind of patriotic presentation was important and sincerely felt at the time is not in doubt but when juxtaposed against the bleak facts of the carnage or the poetic pain of many of the songs presented here it adds to the power of this disc's impact.

Often, with this type of anthologised recital disc I would consider 'dipping-in' to be the most rewarding approach. However with this disc - and this is quite a tribute to both programme planners and performers - I find that there is a cumulative emotional impact from listening to the disc in its entirety. For sure, individual songs stand out as especially impressive but the emotional contrast and journey through the entire recital brings its own considerable rewards. This is clear from the opening bars of the very first song; Gabriel Pierné's "Final thoughts" — included in the Timpani collection of Gabriel Pierné mélodies — which with a few simple almost child-like watercolour sweeps of music creates an atmosphere of rapt stillness capturing "the dreams of the dying returning to their homes". In sharp and fascinating juxtaposition are the nominally light-hearted chanson of Henry Février - two songs taken from his Les Chansons de la Woëvre: track 4: Mimi Pinson met sa cocarde and track 9: Chanson à ma mie. As the liner states, the patter-like insouciance of the music masks a subtle use of harmony and a vocal line that flows between song, a near recitative and actual spoken text. Add to that that these songs were written at Verdun in 1916 and they impress even more. That Février makes use of ballad-style melodic lines in no way undermines for me the power of the music's emotional impact.

Indeed, one of the recurring impressions is how well the lesser-known composers' works stand comparison with their more celebrated colleagues. The disc's single most extended song is Alfred Bruneau's Le Tambour. Written early in the War and originally conceived with orchestral accompaniment this is more direct in its evocation of a noble and innocent French countryside before the recruiting-sergeant's drum summons men to arms. In effect it is an extended dramatic scena and allows both performers to show the range and power of their musical skill. It is only the benefit of hindsight that makes the "ardent-eyed" mood of the poem and setting ring hollow - all the more so when the next song in the recital is Reynaldo Hahn's moving Aux morts de Vauquois. Hahn uses a simple hymn-like chordal accompaniment over which the singer sings: "There is no need for a prayer, at places which hold our dead. Our hearts are their cemeteries, which keep as living shrines their memories like treasure." Again the directness and sincerity of this sentiment is made all the more powerful for realising that Hahn wrote the music - to quote the composer - "during the sorrowful winter of 1915 in a village in ruins (Clermont-en-Argonne) incessantly buffeted by the din of War."

This is a disc full of highlights: Caplet's Solitude and the two songs by Jacques Pillois which give the disc its title. In stark contrast are the music-hall bombast of Vincent Scotto's Les Tourneuses d'obus and La Tranchée aux étoiles. Again, all credit to the performers and especially here Françoise Masset for finding a 'cruder' singing style that suits the former song perfectly. The latter is used to close the recital which is a moving choice in that it ends the disc with the text: "forgotten the massacre, go to sleep with a joyful heart, for you father please close your eyes....".

As with the previous releases in this series Hortus back up the excellence of the music and performances with high quality engineering and a booklet of real interest and value. Alongside the descriptions of the music and the usual artist biographies are an essay on the role of female entertainers in the war and period photographs. All this is printed on high quality paper in small but clear type. If only there were translations of the poems from the original French, some recording details and composer information this would be pretty much perfect presentation.

A disc to enhance the reputations of all involved.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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